§ 3.10 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Strathclyde.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]
§ Clause 52 [Opencast operations]:
§ [Amendment No. 73 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
Lord Stanley of Alderley moved Amendment No. 74:
Page 47, line 46, leave out ("31st December 1999") and insert ("Royal Assent").
§ The noble Lord said: I move this amendment in support of the Coal Liaison Group, which comprises the CBI, the Coalfield Communities Campaign, the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the CLA, the Association of County Councils, RICS, the British Property Federation, the Association of British Insurers, the Law Society and the NFU. Of those organisations I am a member of just one. I mention them to emphasise that the amendment is not just a concern of landowners.
§ So far as the layman is concerned, compulsory rights orders, which this amendment addresses, to all intents and purposes are compulsory purchase orders. In my opinion, they should not be used in a free society unless very clear and valid reasons can be given for having them. I hope to persuade the Committee that they should not be given in this Bill for a number of reasons.
§ First, we have an abundance of coal for our needs. Coal competes with other fuels, such as gas, and should be treated similarly. Secondly, compulsory rights orders will only compensate for economic loss and not for loss of amenity. Imagine losing your garden ! Thirdly, it is illogical to have a CRO for the interim period up to 1999, as the Government propose in the Bill, when that does not apply to other minerals and fuels. I should have thought that it would be much more sensible for them all to be treated equally now rather than for coal to be a one-off until 1999. Anyway, the Government have said that CROs are not justified in the long run and so, I think I am right in saying, did the Labour Government when they were imposed in 1958 and 1975.
§ It is far from right for one private person or an organisation, just because it is a coal company, to be able to threaten another private person or persons with a CRO and so obtain more favourable terms. That does not seem to me to be a very level playing field. Indeed, the coal developer might well be forced to go for a CRO to obtain a better deal as a duty to his shareholders. 1014 Worse still, private owners will be at a similar disadvantage when negotiating satisfactory terms, particularly perhaps for future liabilities, which is a matter that the Committee has discussed at length.
§ The amendment proposes that, as from Royal Assent, all negotiations between owners and coal operators should be freely negotiated between the parties, as for all minerals and other fuels under the 1966 Act. I must remind the Committee that it allows a coal developer, if the owner proves obstructive, to obtain a right to mine by applying to the courts.
§ For the moment I conclude because I am anxious to hear the views of the Committee and of my noble friend. But I cannot help reminding the Committee that this Government have always been in favour of free negotiation between parties—witness, for instance, in my own field, the Government's desire to have just that for agricultural tenancies. Yet in this Bill, by prolonging CROs, they are doing exactly the opposite. Talk about giving a bad example! I beg to move.
§ Earl Peel
In putting my name to the amendment, I very much support my noble friend. It seems to me quite clear that it is far from satisfactory to have conditions in the Bill allowing licensed operators to gain access to land through compulsory powers.
I should like to raise another point. The provision seems to grate against the principle, for which this Government stand and which I very much support, of operating a free market wherever possible. It seems to me quite wrong that one private operator should be disadvantaged in negotiations with another private operator through legislation. It seems equally wrong that a private landowner should be disadvantaged to the benefit of shareholders in newly formed privatised companies.
There is here a principle which worries me. I read with very great concern what the Country Landowners' Association wrote about the Bill. It said:The Coal Industry Bill is yet another example of a Conservative government confiscating the rights of private individuals".I find that a very sad and worrying statement. I am sure that the Government should heed and take notice of it. There is little doubt that there is a feeling that there has been what I can only describe as an insidious move to undermine basic property rights by a government that I support and, quite frankly, would not expect to move in that direction.
When I consider the effects of compulsory rights orders and note that it is the intention that they should continue for five years after the passage of the Bill, it strikes me—I suspect that it strikes others as well—that perhaps the Government do not have the confidence in the licensed operators to make a success of their businesses. If that is the case, it has other ramifications with regard to the Bill —the question of environmental duties, for a start.
If the Government believe that the licensed operators may struggle, they should not attempt to subsidise them at the expense of owners of land and farm businesses. It should be done in a up-front manner which all can see and not through what I see as some form of back-door subsidy. This amendment would stop the compulsory 1015 transfer of rights in land to the private licensed operator and would ensure that the owner of the land could negotiate on equal terms, thus allowing the full development value to be taken into account and not simply existing use value. The amendment seems to me to be quite fair. I support it very warmly.
§ Lord Hamilton of Dalzell
I speak as a member of the CLA and as a landowner who, at one time in history, on both sides of my family benefited very much from the coal industry. I believe that I have coal in places under my estate in Shropshire but it is not of a commercial nature.
Once again I come to cross swords with my noble friend Lord Strathclyde on the matter of the infringement of property rights of landowners by a Government which seem to take the elementary view that, whenever they have a difficulty, there are more voters who are not landowners than voters who are landowners. Therefore they take the easy way out. It is as though they have taken literally that old army story that when you were sent abroad as a young officer you needed to know two phrases in the foreign language of the appropriate country. One was, "Bring me all your prettiest girls", and the other was, "My friend will pay".
Perhaps that view is one of the reasons that the Government insist on kicking landowners incessantly in the teeth. Another is the feeling that when planning permission is given for a landowner to exploit his property, for some reason or another the increased value which arises from it belongs in one way or other to the community. That was the principle which led to the land betterment levy. I suspect that if the Government insist on this measure there will be a massive resistance to planning permission ever being given for future exploitation of the ground for opencast mining of coal. After all, there is an absolute plethora of organisations in this country where one can obtain advice on resisting applications for planning permission. If that fails, there is always Europe.
The coal industry may well find itself in severe difficulties in trying to expand its business before 1999 whereas in a free market, as landowners, we are all prepared to tolerate the inconvenience of sandpits, gravel pits and so forth which make an intrusion into our landscape. We do so because it produces the money by which we are able to make our property survive. I therefore strongly support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Stanley.
§ Lord Gisborough
I too support the amendment. The present regime was introduced in 1958. The CRO regime was introduced in 1975 due to the energy crisis without which it would probably not have been retained. Conditions are now totally different. There is plenty of coal and no energy crisis. There is therefore no justification for the measure. I support the amendment.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
Will the Minister kindly respond to a question I raised last Thursday? It may be the only opportunity before Report. The Minister may recall that I asked where one proceeds when one has been unable, 1016 after exhaustive inquiries, to identify the owner of the minerals below the surface of the land. If the minerals are coal there is no problem.
As a solicitor in South Wales I experience immense difficulties from time to time in identifying the owners of minerals other than coal. I mentioned earlier in Committee that in the 19th century, when the surface of the land was sold off by the large settled estates—Beaufort, Tredegar and others—they always reserved to themselves the right to gain the minerals other than coal. But from time to time the question arises as to who is today, in 1994, the owner of those minerals.
I shall be grateful if the Minister will deal with that question. Whether it comes within the orbit of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, I am not sure. However, I did not receive a reply on Thursday and I am anxious to clear up the matter once and for all. I have known cases of urgency where, as solicitors, we have tried to establish the ownership of the minerals other than coal. We found that it could be devolved over 100 years to property companies and pension funds. However, to find out who is the precise owner today is extremely difficult. I shall be grateful if the Minister will answer my question.
§ The Earl of Lytton
As my name stands to the amendment I too express my support for it. The case outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, is one that requires an answer. Of the bodies he referred to I can claim an involvement with three, so my card is duly marked. But the real problem is the long-term nature —running until 1999—of the uncertainties that attend these rights to compulsorily take the land of another. I agree that it is wrong for a private proprietor or company to have such rights where there is no overriding strategic national need. That point needs to be answered.
Beyond that, I remember distinctly when we were discussing the Planning and Compensation Bill that we amended the provisions so that there was no continual running on of compulsory rights in favour of local and other authorities. It fits ill with the principle in the Bill that we foreshortened the principles in that instance by indicating that if they had not been implemented they would lapse. Here, we have a situation where the rights apparently run on with great detriment to the weaker party, which is inevitably the party against whom compulsion will be exercised.
I feel that it is economically destabilising. We should look not so much on matters of ownership and rights of owners, but to those who made the investment in the land; those who had the duty placed on them with regard to its well-being and the business operation being carried on, often running back over centuries. That must be weighed in the balance with regard to the transfer of the rights. I support the amendment most strongly.
§ Lord Morris of Castle Morris
We on these Benches find ourselves in sympathy with the amendment. Although the Bill will enable both deep-mine and opencast coal extraction to be licensed, it is the opencast sector that seems to receive the greatest assistance. The limit of 250,000 tonnes is to be lifted —and we shall return to that. The powers to make 1017 compulsory rights and other ancillary orders under the Opencast Coal Act 1958 are to remain until the end of 1999. Clearly, that is where the Government expect to make most profit from privatisation. The views of those unfortunate enough to live on or to own property neighbouring opencast sites seem to count for very little in comparison. I am reminded of the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield, when he said at Second Reading,So far as one can see, the only real reason for it is that it enables some people to get rich more quickly. In itself, that does not seem to be a sufficient reason for maintaining something that is so hurtful to so many people while it is happening and indeed afterwards".—[Official Report, 11/4/94; col. 1316.1That is true also in the context of this amendment. The purpose of the amendment is to cancel the power to secure rights in land by compulsion for transfer to private sector mining companies. As we have been reminded, CROs were introduced during the 1970s in effect as a result of the oil crisis. In the post-privatisation climate of the 1990s they surely have no place. All such rights, by the Government's ideology and by simple natural justice, should be secured by negotiation in the open market of the new regime. We strongly support the amendment.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
I am glad to have the opportunity of taking part in this debate, particularly as so many of my noble friends used forceful language in favour of the amendment. I am grateful for the case made by my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley. If matters were as simple as he made out, I would largely agree with him. However, they are not that simple; I do not entirely agree with him and I shall explain why.
I suspect that my noble friend was using a certain amount of poetic licence when he said that one's garden could be taken away. It is my understanding that it would be extremely difficult for a garden to be taken away if next to a dwelling house, as I dare say most gardens are. However, as I said, I suspect that my noble friend was using poetic licence.
What was not poetic licence, though, was the way my noble friend used the language of the CLA, an organisation which I have always respected for the careful way it does its research. However, this time it has fallen below the standards for which I have always held it in high regard. It has had numerous meetings with the Minister for Energy. Indeed, I have made an offer to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, to meet the CLA with him. It is not true that this is about private individuals confiscating land. That is to put a gloss on the whole subject that is ridiculous and not true. What we are dealing with are quite technical and complicated operations which I should now like to explain.
Under the Opencast Coal Act 1958, British Coal may at present make an order, known as a compulsory rights order (or CRO), which gives it the power to enter onto land and carry out opencast operations. The effect of Clause 52 of the Bill would be to carry those powers forward for a transitional period of five years. As well as extracting coal, the CRO gives an operator the right to carry out activities incidental to coal extraction, such as 1018 land restoration. CROs only have an effect if confirmed by the Secretary of State for the Environment—or the Secretary of State for Scotland or the Secretary of State for Wales, as appropriate. I should stress that a CRO in no way overrides the need for planning permission. A Secretary of State may only confirm a CRO if planning permission has been granted.
The availability of compulsory rights to land is not a special privilege of opencast coal operators. Any mineral operator, including a person extracting oil, gas, sand or gravel as well as coal, can apply to the High Court for compulsory rights under the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Acts. The High Court may grant compulsory rights if it concludes that it would be expedient in the national interest to do so.
The principle of compulsory rights therefore is well established. What is at issue—here I agree entirely with my noble friends—is the procedures that should be followed and, crucially, the safeguards that should be in place when an operator seeks compulsory rights to land. British Coal has used CROs as powers of last resort, and the Government are determined that they should continue to be used in this way—as powers of last resort. To achieve this, we are adding extra safeguards to the CRO regime.
During the transitional period, the responsibility for making the orders will fall on the Coal Authority. In practice, we intend that the authority should not make a compulsory rights order or any of the ancillary orders unless it is satisfied that the applicant has made all reasonable efforts to secure the rights by agreement. But that has not been possible for one of three reasons: first, that the owners of the land are too numerous or cannot be identified; secondly, that the owners do not have the authority to negotiate access to the land—for example, if their title to the land is defective or partial; thirdly, that the owners have unreasonably refused to negotiate, or sought unreasonable terms. To come into force, the CRO must be confirmed, as I have said, by the Secretary of State. My right honourable friends will only confirm a CRO if they are satisfied that it is in the public interest to do so. In determining whether to confirm a CRO, they will have to have regard to any representations received from the land owner.
The private operators, unlike British Coal, will not themselves have the power to make CROs. They will have to apply to the Coal Authority, which it is intended will agree to making a CRO only if the operator has made every reasonable effort to obtain access by negotiation; and then the CRO cannot come into effect until it has been confirmed by the relevant Secretary of State. Furthermore, a CRO is not a compulsory purchase power. Its duration will depend on the time that is expected to be necessary to extract the coal and restore the site, which I understand on average is between five and seven years in the United Kingdom. Once working at an opencast is complete, the site will be returned to the previous occupier. The operator will be obliged, under the terms of his planning consent, to carry out appropriate restoration and aftercare. That will be enforced by planning authorities in the usual way.
In addition, the landowner may call upon the wide-ranging compensation code of the 1958 Act.
1019 While a CRO is in force, the landowner and tenant are entitled to compensation for any rent or profits forgone from the use to which they were putting the land. If any works are required to bring the land back to its previous condition once working has ceased, the landowner may claim any reasonable expenses from the operator. If the land in question has fallen in value as a result, or indeed any neighbouring land owned by the same person, the landowner can again claim compensation. This debate is not really about compensation because we shall come onto compensation later this afternoon. I hope it has not escaped the notice of my noble friends that I have put down amendments which greatly enhance the compensation regime vis-à-vis other minerals.
Perhaps I may turn to the issue of five years. My noble friend Lord Stanley said it was illogical to keep the powers until 1999. I agree with him up to a point. We accept that it would not be acceptable for the opencast industry to have access to special powers that are not themselves available to other mineral operators. The Minister for Energy announced on 2nd December a review of the compulsory access provisions of the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Acts. We intend that the outcome of the review should be a common set of procedures which can apply to all minerals. That is the key. It is an issue which affects many interests, including those of landowners, farmers, tenants and the very diverse minerals industries. That is why we need the five-year transitional period. Of course, the date is a drop-dead date, which means that if the Government have not come forward with changes by 1999, the powers fall completely. We believe the powers for other minerals and the powers for coal should be the same once we have come to a view after we have had the consultation process.
As I have described, we shall expect CROs to be powers of last resort. The new safeguards will help to ensure that that is the case. I am satisfied that what remains is the absolute minimum necessary to prevent serious disruption for the industry in the meantime. While we shall expect opencast operators to make every effort to obtain access to surface land by negotiation, there may be times when the owner of the land is unable or unwilling to grant it, or seeks unreasonable terms. In those circumstances, and if it is felt to be in the public interest, the option of compulsory access must remain open.
Furthermore, I believe that it is necessary to preserve during the five-year transitional period the modified CRO regime that is set out in Clause 52 and Schedule 8 to the Bill. CRO procedures have been modified over the years to take account of the development of the planning system. The two sets of procedures now mesh very effectively. The general mineral procedures of the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Acts, by contrast, are widely felt to be time-consuming and burdensome. We are reviewing those procedures.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked about identifying the owners of minerals other than coal. I agree that this can occasionally cause difficulty. As the noble Lord said, those will normally belong to the surface owner unless ownership has been transferred at some time in the past. As a practical matter, if it is 1020 difficult to establish ownership the 1958 Act requires that notices be affixed on the land; and if there are any owners who have not been identified, they can then come forward. What happens if they do not come forward, I am not entirely certain. Perhaps I may look into the matter and write to the noble Lord.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
I am grateful for that information. The problem arises where the owner has good reasons for not identifying himself.
§ Lord Strathclyde
As I said, I shall look further into the question. In his opening statement my noble friend Lord Peel said many things which are very important, but he said one thing which is particularly important. He said that it came as a surprise that the Government believed in operating in a free market wherever possible. The key to that sentence is "wherever possible". We believe in operating a free market, but there may be limited occasions when we must have the right checks and balances to allow a compulsory rights order to go forward. I hope that my noble friends accept that point.
It came as a great surprise to hear the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, say that he believed in a free market and compensation at a free market price, because for decades successive Labour governments have nationalised people's belongings, with hardly any compensation whatever. I believe I am right in saying that they were even taken to the European. Court to make sure that money was paid over.
§ Lord Dormand of Easington
Would the Minister like to tell the Committee which industries were nationalised by a Labour government where no compensation at all was paid?
§ Lord Strathclyde
If I said "no compensation" then I apologise. There was very little compensation. I certainly do not believe that that compensation was made at the true market value, which was the impression the noble Lord, Lord Morris, was trying to give. If I were my noble friends receiving the support of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, I would wish to consider my position again very carefully.
I know that I have taken some time in explaining this situation. I wanted to place on record exactly the position concerning the CROs. It is a very important issue to get right. I believe that the checks and balances that are in place are appropriate to ensure that we have a regime with the lightest possible touch.
§ Lord Peston
Before the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, says what he wants to about his amendment, perhaps the Minister could clarify two or three points. I think I heard him say that from now on only the Coal Authority could apply for CROs. Can the Minister confirm that he said that and that, if the licensee wished to engage in opencast mining, the procedure would have to be via the Coal Authority and therefore the Coal Authority itself could say that it would not do it? Can the Minister explain that further to us?
I partly agree with the argument that, in a world with an excess supply of energy and with certainly no sign of energy becoming very scarce again, rules that applied in 1021 the past may well not apply to the present or in the future. What intrigued me is why the Government chose five years. What analysis did they carry out in order to say that the appropriate interim period was five years? The Minister has simply told us that it had to be a number greater than nought. It could as well be five minutes. Can the Minister say why five years represents the right interim period? I would like to know the answer to that.
§ Lord Strathclyde
I can confirm to the noble Lord that he is right; namely, that it is the Coal Authority which will agree to make a CRO, but will only do so once certain conditions have been met. It is not the private mining company itself that has the CRO up its sleeve. That is why I believe that it is a longstop reserve power which is important. The noble Lord also asked about the period of five years. There is no very good reason for that period, nor is there a very bad reason for five years; it is just five years. It seemed like a reasonable length of time when the Bill was being drafted, given that we are reviewing the situation and consulting with the industry to see what kind of regime should exist. If we come forward with proposals before five years, the regime under the Bill will be replaced. Five years is the longest possible time that these powers can remain in place.
§ Lord Ezra
The noble Lord has indicated the ways and the care with which the CROs will be agreed by the Coal Authority. But an important aspect is how the opencast mining operation is conducted, whether with the benefit of a CRO or not. I need hardly remind the noble Lord that, under the National Coal Board and British Coal, opencast mining was subject to very careful rules and regulations. All the contractors were bound to observe those rules—that is to say, during the course of the opencast mining operation they had to have care to minimise the impact on the local community and restoration had to be up to the optimum standard. Is the Minister satisfied that in this Bill, when opencast mining operations occur for whatever reason, it will be up to those very high standards?
§ Lord Strathclyde
The noble Lord himself pointed out that that situation applies whether or not there is a CRO. In that respect the CROs do not have power to impose those kind of provisions. They are imposed by planning permission. I join with the noble Lord when he says that these are measures which have been carried out extremely well by British Coal. I would expect planning authorities to impose the same conditions on future mining companies as they currently do on British Coal.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Monkswell
Members on this side of the Committee will be very pleased to hear that in his words this afternoon the Minister has effectively given approval to the principles and practices of nationalisation by the use CROs, or their equivalent, in the national interest. We can all accept that and the fact that the 1022 relevant Minister is the custodian of those rules. I shall be interested to know how the Minister will inform himself of that national interest.
In his remarks the Minister mentioned that, while the relevant Minister effectively would have to give approval for CROs, the landowners could make representations to the Minister. I am not sure how landowners could advise the Minister about the national interest. I can think of other bodies, organisations and people who could very effectively advise the Minister of the national interest. I am thinking in terms of academics, people with specialist knowledge and local authorities. Obviously, information to determine the national interest would have to be given in public so that everyone could see it. Therefore it would be amenable to the whole democratic process and also inform the process of democracy.
Can the Minister confirm that that will be the practice of the relevant Ministers when they try to determine the national interest vis-à-vis CROs; namely, that effectively there will be something like a public inquiry to take evidence from bodies such as local authorities?
§ Lord Strathclyde
The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, is being silly when he compares what I said with any belief in nationalisation. It should be completely clear to him—it certainly is to his noble friends—that I am not a believer in anything like that.
As regards the public interest, it is intended that the relevant Secretary of State will confirm a CRO only when he is absolutely satisfied that it is in the public interest to do so. In taking that decision, he will consider in every individual case whether or not there is broad public interest in allowing the coal to be worked which is sufficient to override the normal rights of a landowner to withhold consent for the development of his land. In other words, if the site were to go ahead, he will consider what benefits there will be for the public at large and not only for the opencast operator.
The decision to confirm a CRO is not one which any Secretary of State could take lightly. He would invite representations from all the interested parties and perhaps even from the academics whom the noble Lord mentioned. The decision could be taken only in the light of careful consideration of any representation which might be made in response.
§ Earl Peel
I wonder whether I may correct something that my noble friend said earlier. I think I am right in saying that when I quoted the press statement from the Country Landowners' Association my noble friend thought that I said that the CLA was accusing the Government of confiscating land. That is not the case and that is not what I said. What the CLA actually said was that this was another example of the confiscation of rights—a rather different thing. What we are taking about is the right to free negotiation. I am bound to say that from what I have heard from my noble friend I do not think that he has said anything to allay my fears on this matter. My noble friend quoted other mineral operators, but I do not think that that is any excuse. There is no national need—that case has been made on both sides of the Committee—and if there is no national need, it seems clear that the negotiations should take 1023 place above board, freely and openly, and subject to market conditions. I am very surprised and disappointed at what my noble friend has said.
§ Lord Strathclyde
I think I probably misheard my noble friend. I accept that he was talking about the removal of rights. However, it is only a question of the removal of rights after the system of free negotiation has broken down and the Secretary of State feels that it is in the public interest to confirm a compulsory rights order. What I had sought to indicate during my reply was that those powers would be used only in the most extreme cases. If those rights are removed, can my noble friend justify a position where one very small landowner (among a number of other landowners who have all agreed to sell their land to a coal operator) should be able to stop the whole development, which could well be in the public interest—indeed, in the national interest —and provide many jobs? That is what my noble friend has to justify. It is that kind of decision that the Secretary of State will take into account (and the Coal Authority will take into account) when he makes his decision. I have tried to make the point that we are talking about long-stop powers. They are not for everyday use. They are not threatening powers. They are to be used right at the very end of a very long process.
§ Earl Peel
Even if they are long-stop powers, we cannot get away from the fact that they exist. They are hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles and they will always have an effect on the ability of a private landowner to operate freely in such conditions. On the point about a landowner who may be obstructive and trying to prevent such a development taking place, I believe that that is his prerogative and that the negotiations must take place accordingly. That is what the free market is all about and that is what I believe we should have in this case.
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
Will the Minister accept from me that some of us are getting tired of hearing appeals from landowners? Is it not about time that some of the landowners began to look again at the question of the rights of landowners to examine how they acquired those rights and whether they should still have them?
§ Lord Prys-Davies
Further to the very valid point that was raised by my noble friend Lord Monkswell, can the Minister give us further enlightenment? When an application is submitted to the Secretary of State for his decision, will notice be given to members of the public in the locality of the fact that the application is before the Secretary of State, and will they be invited to send representations to the Secretary of State?
§ Lord Strathclyde
Much will depend on what happened during the planning permission process, which, as the noble Lord knows, takes fully into account the needs and requirements of the local area, which is dealt with by the local authority and to which individuals can make their representations.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
But in reply to my noble friend, the Minister said that academics and others would be 1024 entitled to make their representations to the Secretary of State. How will the academics know when the matter is before the Secretary of State?
§ Lord Strathclyde
Once planning permission had been given, I am sure that it would become well known that a landowner presumably did not want to sell his land to a mining operator. I am sure that a recalcitrant landowner would make that absolutely plain. It is up to the Secretary of State to make sure that he hears the right representations. I can assure the noble Lord that all the Secretaries of State I have ever known take their responsibilities very seriously.
§ Lord Monkswell
There is a bit of difficulty here in that the Minister is talking about planning permission which, as I am sure he will know, is completely separate from the business of commercial undertakings. In fact, I do not think that the commercial nature of an operation can be taken into account under planning law. In addition, the ownership of land or property is not taken into account in determining planning applications. They are two separate elements in the determination of what goes on. Therefore, it is not strictly true to say that everything will be sorted out by the planning application and that everyone who has an interest will be advised. I should be happy if the Minister could assure the Committee that where a CRO is being contemplated, the public at large will be advised and will be asked to make any representations that they need to make on the basis of the CRO rather than on the planning application.
§ Lord Strathclyde
The public at large are notified and their views are taken during the planning process, as the noble Lord well knows.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
I am sure that the Minister is being as helpful as he can be, but in reply to my question he said that he was sure that the Secretary of State would listen to the right representations. Can the Minister give us an indication of the kind of representations that are included within the category of "right" representations and what representations fall within the category of "wrong" representations?
§ Lord Strathclyde
I feel that I have gone over this at some length already. There are two quite distinct issues. One is the question of the planning permission and the other is the question of the CRO. I said that when a Secretary of State confirmed a CRO he would necessarily invite representations from all interested parties. The decision could be taken only in the light of careful consideration of any representations which might be made in response. If that is not clear, I really do not know what is.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
I must try to address a number of points. The first is that this question does not apply only to large landowners, as was intimated. A small householder, smallholder or anybody could be affected. Perhaps I may put on record that I am not a landowner—or rather of only about 20 acres. Secondly, my noble friend the Minister replied to my noble friend Lord Peel about the CRO being used only in extreme 1025 cases and said that there could be one awkward smallholder among a number. The 1966 Act would deal with that.
I really think that my noble friend has a fairly weak case. All that he can accuse me of—I am sure that my old friend the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, will excuse me of this—is using poetic language. The reason why I made that case was that a compulsory rights order does not compensate fully for amenity rights, and it seems to me that a garden is as good an amenity area as any other.
I come now to the difficulty of obtaining a CRO, of which my noble friend made great play. He said that it was enormously difficult, but it is not. My noble friend must know as well as I do how one gets a CRO, but if I recite the process it might also answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. Someone can get a CRO where the owners of the land are numerous or cannot be identified. That is one way. Someone can get a CRO if the owners do not have the power to grant the rights sought. Lastly, someone can get a CRO where the owners have unreasonably refused to negotiate or have sought unreasonable terms. I do not know—no Member of the Committee knows—the meaning of "reasonable" or "unreasonable". We have argued that many times since I became a Member of your Lordships' House.
Finally, there are other reasons which make it easier to obtain an order. I have to say that nothing in the Opencast Coal Act has been changed. With regard to CROs, the Act refers to,facilitating the working of coal by opencast operations".I take that to mean that when the Minister is asked whether he is going to grant a CRO, there is a bias in favour, because he has to facilitate. We have had similar arguments about bias in respect of the regulator in other privatisation Bills. I see the noble Lord, Lord Williams, nodding. The order is not difficult to obtain, and it will not be, as I tried to say earlier, a power of last resort. It will be cheaper to obtain a CRO. The shareholders may well drive the company to obtain a CRO because then it will not have to compensate so much.
I agree with a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Morris and Lord Hamilton. At the back of my mind, I feel that there is an element of greed involved. The Government will be able to obtain a better price for the piece of land. I am therefore suspicious. I thought that the Conservative Party was in favour of free negotiation. I can help the noble Lord, Lord Morris, although I am sure he does not want any help. He said that he understood that that was what the Government stood for. Like me, he was rather surprised that they had suddenly changed.
The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, mentioned the national interest and public interest. That is an issue at which we must look carefully, perhaps at a later stage, or we must have a better description of what is in the public interest. I am worried about that point. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, asked why the period should be five years. He did not receive an answer. If I were to suggest to my noble friend the Minister that it should be five minutes, he might give me a good reason as to why it should not be five minutes. However, he did not give the noble Lord a good reason as to why it should be five years. I 1026 see my noble friend nodding and smiling. I agree again with the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. British Coal's responsibility was great, and it had a great reputation. The worry in everyone's mind is that when one has a private individual—I fall into that category—I am out there to get what I can at the cheapest price. That is what I am driven by. I am selfish. I am sure that we are all selfish. That is what worries me when particular rights are given.
I promised my noble friend the Minister and my noble friend the Chief Whip that I would take nothing to a Division at this stage, not least because I wanted to listen to and think about what my noble friend the Minister had to say. If he wishes to take the amendment to a Division, I am content to let him try—perhaps he is happy to do that—bearing in mind the feeling of the Committee. However, I believe that it would be better if we waited and tried to hammer out something between us.
I have to say that if I am to reach a compromise, it must be a compromise in my favour. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord has done that in court. I should be forced to insist upon that by the support that I have received from the Committee. I am a fair person, but I shall be forced to go for a hard compromise because of the support I have received from my noble friends and noble Lords opposite, in order to reach some agreement. Meanwhile, out of the kindness of my heart, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 75 not moved.]
§ [Amendment Nos. 76 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
§ Clause 52 agreed to.
Lord Stanley of Alderley moved Amendment No. 77:
Page 117, line 4, at end insert ("for the purposes of extracting coal, other minerals and for restoring the land but for no other purpose.".").
§ The noble Lord said: Once again I have to tell my noble friend the Minister that had he been wise enough to accept my amendment on CROs, the amendments in my name to Schedule 8, starting with this one, would have been less necessary. But while the Committee considers between now and Report stage what to do about CROs, I feel obliged to move my amendment to Schedule 8. If the Government are determined to resist it, so be it.
§ The amendment restricts the ability of the Coal Authority and the Secretary of State to extend compulsory rights to the import of material from outside the site to fill up the hole made by the extraction of coal. I am not against such an action; far from it. Of course, we want restitution, but if that action makes the site more valuable at the expense of one private party—we are back on the same thing—as against another private party, using compulsory powers, that cannot be just and is against, if I may say so, Tory party philosophy. I beg to move.1027
§ Lord Morris of Castle Morris
Perhaps I may say a word about Amendment No. 77A, grouped with Amendment No. 77, the purpose of which is to prevent rights of compulsory acquisition being abused for purposes which are not connected with mining operations. It is a probing amendment to inquire of the Minister in what circumstances an operator might use compulsory acquisition powers for rights and operations which are purely incidental to mining operations and at a time when mining operations are not authorised. The times when that might be a useful right are, I suppose, in the preparation for mining activities, before a licence commences, and in restoration after the licence has ceased. But the subsection leaves open the possibility of an abuse of those rights at other times and for other activities. I should welcome the Minister's comments on that possibility.
§ Lord Strathclyde
I hope that I can be helpful to my noble friend who knows that I always try hard to be so. I recognise the concerns behind the amendments. The problems have been raised with the Government by the CLA. Concern has been expressed about a situation in which a planning authority may ask an opencast operator to dispose of an adjacent coal tip into the void of his opencast site. At present, it is likely, depending on the circumstances, that that could be done within the scope of a CRO. Amendment No. 77 is designed to prevent any CRO authorising any such use of the land subject to the order.
The movement, storage and eventual disposal of large quantities of materials, either minerals or mine wastes, is of course central to the whole working of any opencast site. It might be necessary in some cases to move existing coal tips in order to get at underlying coal. It will commonly be necessary to build up what are pretty much new coal tips in the process of working the site, the contents of which will eventually be returned to some part of the overall excavation, although not necessarily exactly the same part of the site as that from which they came. It is perhaps stating the obvious to say that the extraction of the coal from an opencast site creates a void which must be filled somehow.
In the majority of cases the landowner will want to negotiate with the operator the extent to which such activity may be carried out. But if the case is such that a CRO has to be made, I do not see any reason to exclude the kind of situation that I have described. It seems to me that using opencast developments in such a way to bring about clearance of dereliction has definite advantages for the locality. It seems a very natural way, if the circumstances are suitable, to link a new development with what may have been a long-standing eyesore.
I now turn to Amendment No. 77A. The amendment would remove the proposed Section 4(1B) (b) of the 1958 Act. As it currently stands under the Bill, Section 4 provides that the Coal Authority may grant a CRO to a licensed operator. A CRO may be used for coal mining operations, as defined in Clause 63 of the Bill, or for any activities incidental to coal mining operations.
The reason for including incidental activities within the permitted scope of a CRO is that in order to carry out 1028 opencasting at a site an operator must carry cut a range of activities. Some of these will involve winning and working coal and will therefore be included in the definition of "coal mining operations". Others, while essential to the operation of the site, will not. The Government see it as desirable that an operator should have the flexibility to carry out these other activities under the CRO. I recognise the probing element of the amendment, but if it were to be accepted an operator would not be permitted to restore the site after he had finished extracting coal.
My noble friend's amendment would forbid a normal and wholly justifiable practice in the opencast industry. I hope that he understands why I say that, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, will not move his amendment.
§ Lord Hamilton of Dalzell
My noble friend presented a vision of turning a coal tip into an opencast site in order to get rid of it. Would not that be a matter for the planning authority before it reached the Coal Authority? In an open market the issue would be one for the planners and the price would be determined in open market negotiations according to how much planning gain was attached to the planning consent.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
I am not against making eyesores better. As the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said, that has been done extremely well by British Coal. As it became more experienced, the job was done even better. I am anxious that that should continue and to that extent my noble friend Lord Strathclyde and I are on the same side. If he is right, or entirely right, I shall concede the point and I shall not come back to it at the next stage. I shall reserve the right to look at what he said with a sympathetic eye and I might come back on Report. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendrnent.
§ Amendment, by leave, 'withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 77A not moved.]
Lord Stanley of Alderleymoved Amendment No. 78:
Page 117, line 29, at end insert:
("(4) After section 4 there shall be inserted—
§ Basis of payment.
§ 4A. The owner of arty interest in the land which is included in a compulsory rights order shall be entitled to payment on the basis of either—
- (i) the consideration in respect of the exercise of the rights granted by the compulsory rights order as would have been fair and reasonable if the agreement had been made between a willing grantor and a willing grantee, or
- (ii) the compensation assessed in accordance with sections 17 to 23 of this Act,
§ The noble Lord said: Once again, this amendment is necessary because of the compulsory element that is introduced by CROs. I am getting bored with repeating that but I must do so. I am sorry to have to tell my noble friend that his Amendment, No. 79A, does not do what my amendment seeks to do. Therefore, I must give the Committee the reason for tabling my amendment.1029
§ Amendment No. 78 is essential in order to preserve the interests of all parties if compulsory rights orders remain. It provides the landowner or occupier with the ability to receive the higher rate of payment in line either with payments agreed between winning parties on the open market or with a payment to cover his direct losses. He cannot receive more than the right is worth, having regard to the open market settlements, unless it is so damaging to him that he incurs a greater extent loss.
§ In order to negotiate access with owners, British Coal has consistently paid more than the sums provided in the Act. Indeed, it leaves its offer open on the table to be accepted at any time, even after it has embarked on a CRO process. That has meant that few CROs have been exercised, although the process was initiated in respect of about one-third of the sites opened up between 1975 and 1991.
§ The Bill also gives smaller operators access to CROs for the first time. To date they have secured access through negotiation to operate licences up to £250,000. I understand that that has worked perfectly well. If CROs are to remain, the compensation formula must allow an owner who is subject to compulsion to be paid on a basis that is no worse than his neighbour's. For many reasons, the owner may be objecting to an opencast scheme. Concern for the local environment is a major factor, and I believe that it would be wrong for him to be penalised.
§ I conclude by reminding my noble friend that he has told the Committee that the main reason for the continuance of CROs is that it is the present practice of British Coal and so should be continued. As I have said already, I do not believe that is a good reason. This amendment does just that; it continues the present practice. On that basis, I cannot see how the Government can object to my amendment. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I am afraid that Amendment No. 79A does not satisfy me. I have nothing to add in respect of Amendment No. 80A. I beg to move.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Morris of Castle Morris
We firmly support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley. We agree that although the Government's amendments are a move in the right direction, they do not go far enough. This part of the Bill has the effect of making the legal position easier than expected, and easier than heretofore, for potential bidders of opencast sites. Why did the Government find it necessary to do that? Why is the path being so smoothed for these potential bidders? Could it be that without such favourable terms, without such cast-iron assurances and being aware of the utterly unquantifiable nature of the liabilities which they would be required to take up, the number of such applicants might be embarrassingly small?
§ Earl Peel
I entirely agree with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Morris. I understand that smaller operators have operated for some time without the use 1030 of CROs. In many cases they have been successful. Why therefore suddenly do we have to have CROs being given to them in addition to other operators? It does not make sense.
§ Lord Strathclyde
Amendment No. 78 deals with Schedule 8 to the Bill, which amends the Opencast Coal Act 1958. These amendments are grouped with Amendments Nos. 79A, 80A and 80B, which stand in my name and also deal with the issue of compensation.
The 1958 Act provides British Coal with access to compulsory powers, where required, to take over land temporarily for opencasting of coal. The Government have begun a review of the general compulsory access procedures for all minerals. That was the point that I made in respect of Amendment No. 74.
Our intention is to preserve the power only for a transitional period. All existing entitlements to compensation of landowners and tenants will be retained. These are extensive. They cover any loss of income or profit from the land covered by a CRO; any reduction in the value of the land once opencasting has finished; and a wide range of disturbance payments.
My noble friend asked why we must preserve these powers as the coal industry goes into the private sector, whereas at present small licensed mining companies do not need them. The point is that, ideally, we should like to have the same regime for all minerals, including coal. We cannot have that because the existing regime for other minerals is flawed. We are consulting on that so that when we have come to a view we can have the same regime covering everyone. That is why we have the transitional period of five years. However, I shall be surprised if we need to use the full five-year period.
I do not believe that it would be sensible to prejudge the outcome of the review which is currently in train. Consultation is taking place with all the various bodies, and of course we shall be consulting the CLA, the NFU and dozens of other representative bodies.
I have some immediate sympathy with the argument that there should be some compensation for other minerals. That is why I tabled my Amendment No. 79A. I have the impression that my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley is not in favour of that amendment. I am quite happy to withdraw it but I thought that it would be of great benefit to many of my noble friends.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
It is not that I am against it. But it does not go as far as I would wish it to go. I am waiting to hear an explanation from my noble friend as to why his amendment is such a good amendment.
§ Lord Strathclyde
Perhaps I may first deal with Amendment No. 78 because it addresses the root issue of the compensation payable when a CRO is made. It proposes that compensation should be determined on the basis of what might be agreed between a willing grantor and a willing grantee.
My concern is that this would constitute a fundamental change to the Opencast Coal Act 1958. As I said, that is being addressed in the review that is currently under way and I do not want to prejudge that review.
1031 I also see practical difficulties with the amendment. I recognise that there are precedents for the use of the willing grantor/willing grantee test. However, there are few cases which have been determined by the courts under those precedents and it is far from obvious how those criteria would be interpreted in individual cases. I am concerned that that would lead to quite significant uncertainty within the industry about the exact basis for compensation when a CRO is made. I cannot believe that that would be in the interests of either my noble friend or the wider mining industry.
As regards Amendment No. 80, my honourable friend the Minister for Energy and I have listened carefully to the anxieties raised by the CLA on the issue of other minerals and, therefore, I have tabled amendments, which I am about to explain.
Amendment No. 79A deals with a feature of the Opencast Coal Act 1958 which has been argued—I believe rightly—to be unfair.
A compulsory rights order under the 1958 Act entitles an operator to extract any other minerals that are worked at the same time as the coal and provides that those minerals shall become his property. If the owner of the minerals is not an established minerals operator, he currently receives no consideration of their value, although he may receive terminal compensation if the freehold value of his land decreases as a result of the extraction of the minerals.
I should stress that the value of those minerals is usually quite low. The minerals most commonly extracted in any quantity together with opencast coal are sand, gravel and clay. In many cases, the coal operator may not consider it worth his while to find a market for them. Nevertheless, I accept the principle that the owner of the minerals should be entitled to compensation.
The effect of Amendment No. 79A would be to create a new entitlement to compensation. When any such minerals are worked, the owner would be entitled to compensation from the operator of an amount equal to one eighth—or 12.5 per cent.—of their market value. I am advised that that figure is consistent with the level of compensation that is generally paid in those cases where working rights agreements are negotiated. Amendment No. 80A provides that that compensation shall fall due at the end of the year during which the right in question was exercised. Amendment No. 80B is purely consequential on Amendment No. 80A.
The operator will be obliged at the end of each year to notify all owners of the minerals. He will have to describe what he has extracted and what estimate he has made of the market value. That will give the owners the necessary information to enable them to submit a claim for compensation. Any dispute over the entitlement to or level of compensation shall be referred to the Lands Tribunal, in common with other disputes over compensation under the 1958 Act.
These amendments were not included in the original draft of the Bill. I believe that the amendments demonstrate the worth of negotiation between interested parties and the Government. I hope that they will be welcomed by my noble friend because they demonstrate 1032 the seriousness with which the Government take those issues. When we reach them, I shall move the amendments formally.
§ Lord Peston
Will the Minister clarify one or two matters? He seemed to be arguing, in the case of his amendments, that they stand on their own and have a specific purpose. The noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, seemed to argue that his Amendment No. 78 is an alternative to the government amendments. I must admit that, listening to the two arguments, it seemed to me that they were somewhat at cross purposes. The amendments are grouped together. Are we meant to view them as alternatives, which is certainly what the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, argued, although the Minister did not justify his amendments in those terms?
We are discussing overruling the free market. Certainly going back as far as Adam Smith, one normally overrules the voluntary principle in times of national emergency. I have not heard—and this goes back to our earlier debates—any case on energy put forward by the Government in relation to a national emergency. If we are overruling the free market in terms of some kind of other criterion in connection with a national emergency, it surely follows—and I have always argued this when I have lectured on the subject —that one then tries to mimic the voluntary principle by saying that the relevant compensation would be that which would be paid to a voluntary seller by a voluntary buyer or, in the case of the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, between a willing grantor and a willing grantee.
That leads me to my question. In pressing for his view, and opposing the view of the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, was the Minister trying to tell the Committee that he rejects that voluntary principle; that he does not believe that the correct principle for compensation should be that which one would calculate as being arrived at by a willing grantor and a willing grantee?
I ask that because the overwhelmingly compelling part of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, was that aspect of it which provides that, if there are to be those infringements of property rights, then the outcome should be as in the case of what would happen in a voluntary state of affairs. I am partly wearing my academic hat but I am seeking to understand the argument. Will the Minister tell us whether in his judgment we are confronted with alternative amendments and, in particular, does he reject that aspect of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, to which I have referred?
§ Lord Strathclyde
These are not either/or amendments and I believe that my noble friend would recognise that. My amendments deal with a small but important part of the issue which concerns him.
The main reason why I resist my noble friend's amendments has nothing to do with the principles. I resist them because they interfere very early on with a regime which we all agree needs to be changed. However, how that regime needs to be changed is under discussion. That is why we are consulting on that issue and that is why I reject my noble friend's amendments.
1033 My amendments deal with an aspect of the current law which I accept is probably unfair to landowners in general. That is why we have brought forward the principle that they should be compensated for other minerals. I am entirely in favour of the voluntary principle where possible, but we are inheriting a regime which has been in existence since 1958 and which presumably has worked reasonably well but is not now seen to be the kind of regime which will lead us into the 21st century. That is why we are reviewing it.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
I never thought that I should be in such agreement with or so grateful to an academic, having been a tenant of an academic institution for so many years. But I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for bringing out the differences between the two amendments and explaining them in such a crystal clear way. As the noble Lord said, the problem is that my amendment rests on the voluntary principle. I thought that that was rather a good principle. That is where we differ. I am sorry that my noble friend the Minister accuses me of being churlish. Of course—
§ Lord Strathclyde
I have never accused my noble friend of being churlish; indeed, I would not dream of doing so. He is most powerful when he moves such amendments.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
I am glad to hear my noble friend say that. Perhaps I should put it more clearly. It is possible that my noble friend thought that I was being ungenerous in not accepting what was on the table. However, I am more than happy to accept it and I do so with complete grace. It is just that it has a different approach and we come back, yet again, to the wretched chicken and egg situation: we are waiting for the review; we cannot do anything until it is produced; and so here we are, in the meantime, with the egg and a rather unsatisfactory chicken.
I shall think on the matter between now and Report stage because we have had a very good discussion. As I said, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and to my noble friend the Minister for replying so fully to the problem. At least it is now clear in my mind what the Government are trying to achieve, whereas that was not the case at 2 o'clock this afternoon. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 4.30 p.m.
Lord Stanley of Alderley moved Amendment No. 79:
Page 118, line 38, at end insert:
("(5D) The Coal Authority, or as the case may be the Secretary of State, may not make a transfer under subsection (5A) of this section unless the successor satisfies the Coal Authority that the owners of any interest in the relevant land has been given equivalent assurances to secure the performance of the obligations under the compulsory rights order."").
§ The noble Lord said: The amendment prevents a compulsory rights order being transferred to a new operator without adequate security being given for the performance of the obligations. I believe that my noble friend accepted the principle behind Amendment No. 1034 42, which was moved at an earlier stage by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. The present amendment imposes a similar duty. The law on the transfer of the burden of obligations for the benefit of property rights is unclear. It is important that the authority ensures that those against whom CROs have been made are fully protected. I beg to move.
§ Lord Strathclyde
I fully understand the concerns expressed by my noble friend. As I understand it, the effects of his amendment are fully dealt with in the assurances given under the transfer of an operating licence that would come before any transfer of the CRO. Perhaps I may explain the position more fully. Under the amendment, the authority or the Secretary of State when transferring a CRO should be satisfied that the successor has made equivalent assurances to the landowner to secure the performance of the obligations under the CRO.
I should like to explain briefly the circumstances in which it may be necessary to transfer a CRO. There may be cases in which an operator licensed by the Coal Authority seeks to transfer his operating licence to someone else. Before it agreed to do so, the Coal Authority would have to be satisfied that the new operator met all of its licensing criteria. Specifically, it would have to ensure, in so far as practicable, that the new operator was financially sound and therefore able to discharge his obligations. It would be able to require appropriate financial security as necessary.
If, in those circumstances, the former operator also wished his CRO to be transferred to his successor, that would be a separate decision for the authority. The transfer of equivalent assurances would be covered under the transfer of an operating licence, as referred to above. There would be no need to place an additional duty on the authority in respect of its role in transferring a CRO.
I am saying that my noble friend's point is covered because, if you transfer the licence, you have to go through the process of providing necessary financial security. Therefore, that would provide the necessary security that the landowner would need if a CRO on his land were transferred to another operator. I can assure my noble friend that that point is absolutely covered in the Bill. On that basis, I ask my noble friend to withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Peston
Despite everything, the provision is to do, at least in part, with the rights of landowners. Whatever one may think about them, we do have landowners. As the law stands, they have rights. Moreover, as long as the law stays as it is, such rights must not be infringed. It seems to me that it is nothing to do with politics; it is to do with obeying the law.
If a licensee transfers the licence—and there is a whole part in the legislation to deal with such matters —will the transfer of the CRO be separate from the transfer of the licence? I believe that the Minister said that it would be and that there would be an additional procedure for the transfer of the CRO. However, would the landowner have any rights at all during the process of transfer? Alternatively, would the landowner be told, 1035 "Well, the CRO was given to the original licensee. It is now just a business proposition for him and nothing to do with you"?
The point is that the landowner may have a view about the new licensee; in other words, he might, at long last, have convinced himself that the original licensee was somehow acceptable. He may have doubts and just not like the new licensee. Indeed, it may not be a question of financial liability and could well be to do with many things as regards behaviour. Can the Minister tell us whether the Bill at present guarantees the rights of a landowner with respect to his or her land at least to be consulted if the CRO is in the process of being transferred?
§ Lord Strathclyde
The noble Lord asks an important question about the rights of a landowner. Throughout the Bill I have been at pains to stress the degree of consultation that would take place among the Coal Authority, the new operators and landlords, and that no licence could be offered unless such consultation had taken place. Therefore, I would expect a landowner to be consulted. However, it would be the legal duty of the Coal Authority to satisfy itself that the new operator was able to discharge his obligations, including the new obligations that he took on as a result of buying out or having the CRO transferred to him, and that he would provide appropriate financial security if necessary. The financial security is to be tackled as a result of the licence transfer which, as the noble Lord correctly noticed, is separate from the CRO transfer.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
I am not absolutely certain that my noble friend answered the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, regarding the right or ability of a landowner to object to the new transferor or transferee. However, I shall leave that aspect for the moment. My concern is that, whenever something is transferred once or twice down the line, things become less clear. For example, the first operator may well have been examined very carefully as to whether he was financially sound,in so far as practicable"—a phrase about which I still have doubts. I accept that the operator will be re-examined when the transfer takes place by the Coal Authority, but I am still concerned about the matter despite what my noble friend said. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Strathclyde moved Amendment No. 79A;
Page 127, line 45, at end insert:
§ ("Compensation in respect of disposals of minerals
§ 21A.—(1) After section 31, there shall be inserted the following section—
§ "Compensation in respect of disposals of minerals.
§ 31A.—(1) The provisions of this section shall have effect where—
- (a) any person ('the operator') exercises any right of his by virtue of a compulsory rights order and section 10(1) to this Act to get any minerals other than coal; and
- (b) the land where the right is exercised was not comprised in that order in the circumstances specified in section 33(1) of this Act.
§ (2) The person who, apart from the compulsory rights order and section 10(1) of this Act, would have been entitled to the minerals shall be entitled (subject to the following provisions of this section) to compensation from the operator of an amount equal to 12.5 per cent. of the market value of the minerals at the time when the right is exercised.
§ (3) Compensation shall not be payable under this section in respect of any minerals in so far as (when they are got) they are not, and cannot reasonably be put, in a condition in which (if removed from the land comprised in the order) they would be capable of being sold by the operator.
§ (4) Where more than one person is entitled to compensation under this section, the amount of compensation mentioned in subsection (2) above shall be apportioned between them according to the values of the interests or rights in respect of which each of them would have been entitled to, or to a share of, the minerals.
§ (5) As soon as reasonably practicable, after the end of every period of twelve months during which any person has exercised such a right as is mentioned in subsection (1) above, that person shall give written notice under this subsection to every person appearing to him to be a person entitled to compensation under this section in respect of any exercise by him during that period of that right.
§ (6) A notice under subsection (5) above shall—
- (a) describe the minerals in respect of which the entitlement to compensation of the person given the notice arises; and
- (b) state the market value of those minerals as at the time when the right in question was exercised in relation to those minerals."
§ (2) This paragraph shall not apply where the right in question is exercisable by virtue of a compulsory rights order made before the restructuring date.").
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 80 not moved.]
Lord Strathclyde moved Amendments Nos. 80A and 80B:
Page 128, line 40, at end insert:
("(2A) After subsection (6) of that section there shall be inserted the following subsection—
Page 128, line 42, at end insert (", and for "subsections (4) to (6)" there shall be substituted "subsections (4) to (6A)"").
§ On Question, amendments agreed to.
§ Schedule 8, as amended, agreed to.
§ Clause 53 [Environmental duties in connection with planning]:
Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 81:
Page 48, line 32, at end insert:
§ The noble Lord said: In moving the above amendment, I shall, with the leave of the Committee, speak also to Amendments Nos. 81A, 82 and 83B. The purpose of the amendment is to protect the environment and the "amenity" enjoyed by the residents living in the vicinity of coal mining operations. Here we enter into the great part of the debate on this Bill which is concerned with the environment.
§ The amendment is intended to ensure that opencast coal mining and its associated environmental impacts are fully and properly considered and discussed during 1037 the Bill's progress through Parliament. I say that because Standing Committee D of another place—whose proceedings I am sure your Lordships will have read in considerable detail—hurried this whole issue through on days 16 and 17 of its consideration and, in the view of many of us, gave it rather the fag end of its attention than the cream.
§ Of all methods of mining, opencast extraction of coal has the greatest impact on the environment. As deep mines have closed ahead of exhaustion over recent years, a considerable amount of coal at relatively shallow depths has been left in place. Largely as a consequence of local authority opposition, planning consents for opencast operations had declined from the 15.3 million tonne level of 1981 to 13.3 million tonnes by 1987. In 1988 the Department of the Environment issued a new mineral planning guidance note (MPG) on opencasting. This MPG3 significantly deregulated the opencast planning procedure by introducing national interest considerations and the commercial interests of prospective operators. I shall come back in a moment to the question of national interest.
§ Such criteria swung the balance against the planning authorities and the ability of local communities to do anything very much to prevent opencasting. At the same time, the extraction limit per site was raised to 250,000 tonnes, which had the effect of greatly increasing the size of opencast sites. They became very serious real blots on the environment. While opencast operations remain conditional on a minimum level of nuisance and environmental impact, even the best opencast sites give rise to public complaint. NIMBY—not in my back yard —applies.
§ Problems arising from opencast mining include, obviously, noise, dust, vibration from blasting, heavy lorry traffic, visual intrusion and the loss of long-established and valued landscape features. Take for a moment the question of heavy lorry traffic. This is not heavy lorry traffic trundling gaily down the M.1 or the M.4. These are great six, eight, 10, 12 and 14-wheelers going through small country villages. Believe me—I live in the middle of it in the Peak District—they are very rarely cognisant or observant of things like 30 mile-an-hour limits. Not only can they cause a great deal of noise and danger to small children, who, in villages, are not brought up to have the kind of streetwise appreciation of traffic that people in inner cities have, but they can also cause real structural damage where roads are narrow. The greater danger to children really needs to be taken into account. In some areas where opencast mining takes place there has also been increased incidence of asthma and other respiratory diseases in the nearby populations. That has been measured.
§ The new MPG3, which was issued for consultation in December 1993, coincides with this particular Bill now before your Lordships' House by which British Coal will be privatised. Many planning authorities now fear that the privatisation of coal will be accompanied by a stampede in opencast applications, given that several provisions of the Bill will clearly further deregulate the opencast licensing system. The planning authorities 1038 think that for several reasons. First, the present 250,000 tonnes per site extraction limit is to be abolished with no alternative limit proposed. Secondly, the new draft MPG3 imposes an obligation on local authorities to draw up plans in advance that set out clear criteria against which individual proposals will be assessed and to indicate in detail those areas where provision is made for coal extraction. That clearly suggests that there will be a presumption in favour of opencast applications over and above other considerations set out in a local authority's statutory development plan.
§ Thirdly, in the event of a local authority adopting an anti-opencast policy as part of its development plan then the Secretary of State—I am coming to regard almost every Secretary of State as my natural enemy at the moment because whichever Bill I find myself concerned with the Secretary of State seems to be assuming more and greater powers at almost every stage of the game —could exercise his determination to overrule that part of the plan by invoking the national interest criteria of MPG3. I ask the Government what exactly is meant here by "national interest" for coal in the year of our Lord 1994?
§ To go back for a moment to something we were considering earlier, under the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Act 1966 I believe that I am right in saying that any mineral operator can apply to the courts for an ancillary rights order. The difference between that order and one granted under this Bill is primarily that to obtain an order under the 1966 Act, the coal extractor, like any other mineral company, has to satisfy the court that the grant of the order is expedient "in the national interest". That test is conspicuously absent from the Bill. But there it is, lurking quietly in MPG3. Why is it not trumpeted on the face of the Bill?
§ Fourthly, to revert to the planning authorities, the Coal Industry Bill also retains the powers of the Secretary of State to make compulsory rights orders in support of opencast applications at any time up to 31st December 1999. Combined with the provisions of the Bill for the proposed Coal Authority to issue extraction licences ahead of planning permission being granted, uncertainty and effective planning blight could and will affect many of the coalfield areas. We aired this matter last week and many of us retired sadly unsatisfied.
It is worth noting, too, that the problems extend well beyond the recently active coalfield areas. We are now looking, when we talk of opencast operations, at large areas of shire counties such as Avon, Gloucestershire, Hereford and Worcester, and even the county of Shropshire, beloved of P.G. Wodehouse—Blandings Castle country. The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, has drawn our attention to it. There are coal deposits there. They are known to lie there. Shropshire could be similarly blighted. We are not looking at Labour-controlled areas like South Wales, Durham or places like that. We are looking at sunny Shropshire, the county of A.E. Housman. The noble Lord will remember those wonderful lines which Housman wrote in A Shropshire Lad:
In summertime on Bredon
The bells they sound so clear;
Round both the shires they ring them
In steeples far and near,
A happy noise to hear".
I rewrote those lines last night:
In summertime on Bredon
The JCBs are here;
Round both the shires they thunder
With opencasting gear,
A nasty noise to hear".
It is clear that the new MPG3 and its consultation processes have been delayed in order to make way for the Coal Industry Bill, which makes only a single specific reference to opencasting in Clause 52. Given the very real uncertainty regarding the operational standards of the new private regime, and the extent of opencasting and its regulatory framework, these matters deserve the fullest scrutiny by Parliament if the public interest is to be properly served.
§ I turn briefly to Amendment No. 81A. We have put it forward with the purpose of ensuring that the test of reasonably practicable is objective and not subjective. Amendment No. 82 ensures that mining operations and restoration of land used for coal mining purposes are carried out in accordance with modern planning standards. Those who advise me have given me several pages citing occasions on which that has not occurred. They have also raised the question of the older permissions as distinct from the new ones. It is obviously of benefit to us all that proper environmental amenity and restoration safeguards should be applied to all opencast sites.
§ The Bill gives an ideal opportunity to provide for just such a measure and to give due notice to potential mine operators. It will also give a measure of reassurance to the public that their interests were being protected in the privatisation process. If the amendment which I put forward is not acceptable to the Government, perhaps I may ask the Minister to tell us what steps the Government propose to deal with those older mining consents.
§ Finally, Amendment No. 83B introduces a new clause after Clause 54 which makes it explicit that in the event of failure of a licensed operator, any environmental liabilities would revert to the Coal Authority. As drafted, the clause also covers subsidence liabilities. I beg to move.
§ Lord Crickhowell
I do not intend to say much about Amendments Nos. 81 and 81A on which the noble Lord concentrated except that they raise the issue regarding where responsibilities should lie and therefore carry the risk of some confusion. I suspect that that is an issue about which my noble friend will have more to say in due course.
However, this group also gives us another chance to clarify some important environmental issues and to point to a number of improvements that can still be made in drafting the Bill. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde has already gone some considerable way to removing my worst fears about the Bill. The statement he made (at cols. 539 to 542 of Hansard for 26th April) when dealing with Amendment No. 1, was extremely important. It deserves to be carefully studied by anyone interested in these issues, not least because of what he said about pumping and the treatment of abandoned 1040 mines. It is relevant to Amendment No. 83B which we now consider. I should be grateful if the Committee will allow me to quote three brief extracts from that statement.
My noble friend stated:The Coal Authority will, of course, be the owner of abandoned coal mines throughout Great Britain irrespective of when these may have been worked. The Government have set out in the … explanatory note that they envisage that the authority would set itself certain broad policy aims in respect of the management of property, including all the mines which are not licensed to the private sector. These include the aim, where reasonably practicable, of protecting and enhancing the environment".—[Official Report, 26/4/94; col. 541.]Therefore we have that important statement that the Coal Authority will be the owner of abandoned mines.
At col. 542, my noble friend said:The authority will of course discharge all its legal obligations, and its funding will have to provide for that".Later in the same column, when dealing with the question of abandonment, my noble friend stated:It will clearly be necessary for the operator to consult the appropriate regulatory body about the possible consequences for the water environment of abandoning the mine. Before agreeing to termination of the lease, the authority will expect him to institute any reasonable treatment measures and to make an appropriate payment for any continuing costs".
§ Lord Prys-Davies
I am very interested in Amendment No. 83A. Unless I have misunderstood, that amendment is not grouped with the amendment now before the Committee; or am I mistaken?
§ Lord Crickhowell
I refer to Amendment No. 83B. If I referred to Amendment No. 83A, it was a mistake. I refer to the clause about possible bankruptcy and what happens afterwards.
My noble friend concluded the section at col. 542, stating:Once the lease has come to an end the authority will be responsible for the mine as for any other abandoned coal mine".It seems to me that that was an important statement. What my noble friend said was reinforced in a letter from Mr. Patrick McLoughlin, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and. Industry, to the Selby District Council, dated 25th April when he said:This means that should a license holder fail responsibility would automatically fall back on to the Coal Authority at the stage when the company was dissolved and ceased to be a legal person, assuming that it had not already done so".That is a consequence of the fact that the Coal Authority is the ultimate holder of abandoned mines and of property.
All that seems to me to be most helpful. But while statements made in Parliament and letters from Ministers are helpful, long experience has taught us to be cautious. One would like to see such assurances, if not written into the Bill, at the very least in the department's licensing documents. I cannot find that that is so at present. I believe the fact that Amendment No. 83B has been spoken to gives an appropriate opportunity to probe that issue.
One reason for our anxiety on some of those questions is that I do not believe the Government have been as effective as they might in describing the very considerable extent to which outstanding liabilities fall on the Coal Authority. When considering the maps provided, for example, in the memorandum issued by N.M. Rothschild and Sons Limited on behalf of Her 1041 Majesty's Government, we see vast yellow areas stretching over a very large part of the country. We see a huge number of abandoned mines with potential for pollution and subsidence damage. But we are concerned with the much smaller number of mines which are likely to be operated in the future—to opencast mines and to disposal points. The areas are much smaller and the number of cases with which we are likely to be concerned are much fewer. It took me some time fully to appreciate that point because on reading the document to which I referred one gains the impression that licensed bidders will be bidding for the whole area and the workable coal within it rather than for the individual mines.
At the moment we are concerned with 16 operating mines and about the same number on care and maintenance. Thus we are dealing with a fairly tightly defined set of problems. It is important that we understand that. I hope I have got it right and that my noble friend will be able to confirm it.
We shall therefore seek, so far as we can, to draw a clear line of responsibility around the future action of licensees and the past action—or perhaps past failures —of British Coal and its predecessor bodies. I think that we are entitled still to be concerned, if licensees pick up the potentially large liabilities of the Coal Authority. I should still like a further attempt to be made to place the responsibility for future operations on licensees from the moment they take up the licence rather than to ask them to take over the previous responsibilities of the predecessor bodies. Then at least it would be open to them and third parties who might be affected to seek to establish that the cause of pollution lay with British Coal or the predecessor miner and that it therefore fell on the Coal Authority.
I know that the Government have looked at the matter and I suspect that they would like to do something like that but perhaps they thought the difficulties were too great. I hope that they will reconsider. Apart from anything else, it would remove the legitimate fears of potential bidders and I know that the Government will be anxious to do that, as well as look after the environmental issues.
In the meantime, Amendment No. 82 also gives us an opportunity to consider another matter which, interestingly enough, we have skirted around during debates on previous groups of amendments this afternoon. I confess that I was not here at the outset, but when I entered the Chamber I heard much about the moment at which the licences were issued and the transfer of licence responsibilities. The amendment picks up the same point and reminds us that there is a difference between the moment when the licence is granted and the moment when planning consent is given.
That point arose again last week on 28th April when my noble friend Lord Renton moved an amendment put down by the noble Lord, Lord Moran. It was dealt with by the Minister in reply when he said essentially that we need not be worried —and by "we", in this case I mean the environmental regulator. Previously this afternoon we have been dealing with the landowner wanting to 1042 know what was happening when a licence was granted. On that occasion, we were dealing with the environmental regulator wanting to know what was happening when the licence was granted. They both have an interest and, as my noble friend pointed out on that occasion, it is not right to suggest that, after all, the whole matter was dealt with at the moment when the planning consent was considered and need not be looked at again.
On that occasion, my noble friend said:Our approach is based on the premise that bodies which have been given particular responsibilities should have the right duties and powers for the role that has been conferred on them. In this case, it means that the NRA and the corresponding Scottish bodies should have the powers to discharge their roles. I think they do".—[Official Report, 28/4/94; col. 883.]They can only have the powers to discharge the roles if they have the information that enables them to do so. I am not satisfied that the planning procedures enable them to know exactly what is going on. Later, at col. 884, my noble friend said, referring to the point put to him by the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, of Easington:To turn to the noble Lord's primary point as to the NRA's role as a statutory consultee, that is its role in statute when planning permission is required. Since planning permission is required to undertake opencast coal mining, that is when the NRA will be involved in the decision whether to give planning permission".Later, he said:I maintain that it should be at the planning permission stage rather than at the licensing stage".The difficulty is that the moment you give a licence to a new operator, the new operator may decide entirely to change the basis on which the previous operator worked. The new operator may be mining in a totally different way. For example, his pumping procedures may be completely different, he may be operating on a different scale. The linkages between pits may be different in the new circumstances. The environmental regulator will have given a consent for a discharge at a particular point and for a given volume. But what we may see in this instance is, because of a change in mining techniques, a difference in the chemical content of the water which may now be much more polluting. For example, it may mean getting water from a connected mine which is no longer being mined.
So it seems to me that it is vitally important that not just landowners but also environmental regulators should be brought into the process at the moment when the licence is granted or varied. Therefore, they must be given the necessary information, just as they must be given information when the mine is to be abandoned.
My noble friend made helpful comments on the previous occasion about giving the Coal Authority plenty of notice at the moment of abandonment and consulting the NRA or the Scottish river purification board at that point. Once again, I should like to see the requirement written down in some other form, preferably in the Bill but at least in the licensing document, rather than simply in the Official Report of our debates.
Having made those points about things that need to be done, I conclude by reinforcing the point with which I opened. I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister that he wants to avoid confusion between the jobs of different bodies. I do not believe that it is the job of the 1043 Coal Authority to accept environmental responsibilities or to see that they are carried out. Some of the amendments with which we are dealing today are flawed for that reason. Nor do I wish to transfer liabilities after bankruptcy to the wrong body. If my noble friend approaches the matter on the basis that legislation should be drafted to keep the responsibilities clear, he will have my wholehearted support. But he will have to back that statement with an assurance that the environmental regulators will, at the appropriate moment—which is when the licence is issued or varied —be given the information that enables them to do their job.
§ 5 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My noble friend has made an important contribution this afternoon and I am grateful to him. I should like to ask him for some information, although I should know the answer to this question. He gave the impression that when an operator took over from another operator who had a discharge licence from the NRA, the first operator could change the composition of the discharge without letting the NRA know and that that would not be illegal. Is that correct?
§ Lord Crickhowell
Yes. The situation is normally that a discharge consent will specify where the discharge can take place. It will also specify the volume limits which will take place. But it would not, in normal circumstances, contain a chemical analysis or limits on what is in the discharge from a mine. We have already discovered in cases which we have debated previously that when a mine is closed there can be flows from one mine to another whose chemical content can change drastically. People may change their whole pumping regime underground, and I think that the environmental regulator should be given notice of that information, have the opportunity to comment on it and take measures to counteract it. I do not believe that those arrangements are sufficient at the present time. I hope as a result of what I said, perhaps before we come back at a later stage of this Bill, my noble friend will look at the matter again.
§ Lord Parry
My noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris, needs little support from me; nor does the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, need to have support offered from this side. I wish to comment on the fact that areas of the country that have lived long with coal, such as the Amman Valley in West Wales, where coal is almost in the blood of the indigenous population, nevertheless look with considerable horror on the extension of the opencast mining to which they are subjected. It is possible to see the great hole in the ground that is so important economically and makes such a vital contribution to the fuel of the country spreading out towards the back gardens of houses in Garnant, and almost threatening the peace and quiet of the people who live there.
The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, represented for 20 years —despite my seasonal attempts to unseat him —the lovely county of Pembroke in West Wales. It is a fact that under the green grass of Pembrokeshire lies some of the finest anthracite coal in the world. It is the 1044 western extension of the South Wales/West Wales anthracite coalfield. From time to time the Coal Board identified areas where they might like to look for the opencast mining of coal 'which lay very close to the surface, as the noble Lord, Lord Morris., pointed out. There was an occasion when a road was being driven between Saundersfoot and Tenby when a very rich seam of valuable anthracite coal was found literally on the surface. The decisions that were taken then by everyone concerned took into account that the conflict between the tourism benefits of the area and the easy bringing out of that coal had to be weighed in the balance. The local authorities have been long established there. But their powers have been whittled away. My noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris and the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, talked about the local planning influences. Those influences are no longer nearly as strong as they used to be. It is quite possible that when the renewals come to be applied for the planning controls will be sited in placemen committees and in the Secretaries of State rather than where they once were at the beginning; namely, in the local authority.
I urge simply that it be recognised that in amending this Bill we make absolutely certain that we take into account the present pattern of local government and the present pattern of local controls on planning, and that we do not assume that what happened for the general good under the old system will necessarily come about under the new one.
§ Lord Dormand of Easington
I shall intervene very briefly. I do not wish to intervene in what appears to be a family dispute between the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. I rise only because the noble Lord mentioned my intervention, as the Minister win recall, on statutory consultees. I am not absolutely clear now, although I was clear at the time, so I shall have another attempt.
The Minister said that,Since planning permission is required to undertake opencast coal mining, that is when the NRA will be involved in the decision whether to give planning permission".That is not the NRA. Surely it refers to the planning authority. The Minister went on:I maintain that that is exactly where it should be present. It should not be in the decision as to whether to grant a licence. That quite properly is a role for the Coal Authority". —[Official Report, 28/4/94; col. 884.]That seems to me to be fairly clear. Is there any dispute between what the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said and what the Minister said to me on that occasion?
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
I do not think that there is a great gulf of disagreement between my noble friend and myself on that particular issue. The NRA is a statutory consultee when it comes to getting planning permission. That is the key. It must be consulted. There is an obligation, particularly when dealing with issues of this importance where opencast or deep coal mining has an influence on the water environment. In England and Wales at any rate the NRA is the appropriate body that needs to be consulted. That is absolutely correct. I think that the Committee will—
§ Lord Prys-Davies
Before the Minister replies, there are issues that I believe the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, wants to raise. I should also like to raise one or two issues. I am of course in the Minister's hands.
§ Lord Strathclyde
I am sorry. I was going to reply to the substantive part of the debate. But if other Members of the Committee wish to speak, and I see that they do, I am sorry that I pre-empted them. I shall be delighted to hear them.
§ Lord Ezra
I am much obliged to the Minister. I wanted to comment on these amendments because I think that they are of great importance. I fully support Amendments Nos. 81 and 82. I shall start with Amendment No. 81 onthe desirability of avoiding nuisance",etc. I should have thought that that was a self-evident proposition. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said that we have to be careful not to confuse responsibilities. There is no question of confusion here. This relates to Clause 53(2), which refers to a planning authority. It states:Where a planning authority consider any coal-mining proposals, included in such an application, they shall have regard … to the desirability of the preservation of natural beautyetc. That is excellent. But people should also be a consideration. Amendment No. 81 relates to the nuisance to people. I referred in an earlier intervention to the great care with which British Coal carried out its opencast operations to minimise the disturbance to people. I hope that the Minister will find Amendment No. 81 self-evident, and that he will not argue against it at all. It is perhaps an unfortunate omission that it is not already in the Bill.
As to Amendment No. 82, the licence should include these considerations. Here again we are talking about protecting the environment and the amenity of neighbouring occupiers. Those are very essential considerations in relation to activities such as coal-mining. Whereas the National Coal Board was set up to mine coal, it was also set up with a public responsibility, which it took very seriously indeed. That sense of public responsibility in connection with coal-mining operations should be continued. I feel that the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, do in fact do that. I hope that they will be regarded very sympathetically by the noble Lord when he replies.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
I should like to speak very much in support of Amendments Nos. 81 and 82. I support the thrust of the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. But I propose to reserve my problems on the serious problem caused by the escape of polluted waters from abandoned mines until we come to Amendment No. 83A, although I concede that they could well be brought under the terms of Amendment No. 83B.
I have one slight problem with Amendment No. 82. That is that it refers only to the restoration of the land, whereas in the mining communities a clear distinction has been drawn between the restoration and the aftercare of the site. There is no reference to the aftercare of the site, so far as I can see, in Amendment No. 82. Nor of 1046 course is there a reference to aftercare in Clause 53. Clause 53(1) merely covers restoration works. But the aftercare requirements are equally important. As I understand it, they may extend for a statutory period of up to five years thereafter. Perhaps the Minister would comment on the significance of the omission from Clause 53 of a reference to after-care.
In my experience in Mid Glamorgan, the main problem with opencast mining arises where the operator either is reluctant to carry out the restoration and after-care works which he had agreed with the planning authority or has become insolvent before the works have been undertaken. So, I ask the Minister, who, in those circumstances, carries the burden of restoration and after-care?
Three of the Welsh local authorities are empowered by Acts of Parliament, which they obtained, to require a restoration bond to be deposited by respective developers of an opencast mine as one of the conditions of consent. Experience shows that the local authorities are very wise to require a bond. In Mid Glamorgan—I do not believe that Mid Glamorgan is different from West Glamorgan or Dyfed—I understand that the local authority has had to rely on the bond in one case when the operator became insolvent and in three cases when the operator failed to carry out the necessary works. In five further cases the necessary works were undertaken by the operator after the council had threatened to invoke the bond. I believe that that experience of the Mid Glamorgan County Council demonstrates the value of the insurance bond. But there is no reference to the requirement to deposit an insurance bond in respect even of the restoration obligations.
As I read the document published by the Government, it is their preference that the exercise of opencast mining operations should be controlled by the terms of the planning consent rather than the terms of the licence. However, the role of the planning system in this particular situation is to preserve that careful balance between the ease of extraction on the one hand and the need to protect the environment on the other. But if the planning authority is to discharge that role, surely either in the Bill (preferably in the Bill) or in the mineral planning guidance, the planning authorities should be empowered to require a bond to be lodged to pay for restoration and after-care in the event of the licensee becoming insolvent or being in default.
If the operators are not required to lodge an effective financial security, the cost of restoration or after-care may fall on the local taxpayers and often on industry. If we arrive at such a situation, the planning system will have failed in its function of preserving the careful balance to which I referred. To help us by the time we come to Report stage, perhaps the Minister can confirm my understanding of the position; namely, that in the absence of a provision in the Bill and in the absence of a local Act of Parliament, the planning authority would be unable to demand a restoration bond.
It is of particular concern in South Wales that a valid planning consent which had been given to British Coal without the requirement of a bond will now be assigned or transferred to a private operator without a bond. As I understand it, in practice a bond was not required of 1047 British Coal when it applied for permission since it was felt that with its Treasury backing it would be unlikely to be unable to carry out the restoration works. The same is just not true of private operators. There is a residual concern and I should be grateful if the Minister would address it. If we are to meet that gap in the law, the Bill should empower the planning authority to require a bond to be deposited before the licence is transferred from British Coal to the operator. I shall welcome the Minister's response.
I have a last question for the Minister. I am sure that he can confirm my understanding of the position. When the Local Government (Wales) Bill was before the Chamber, I regret to say that we omitted to question the Minister about the position in which one of the three local authorities has obtained the power by Act of Parliament to require a bond. Will that power be transferred to the successor authority under the Local Government (Wales) Bill? I omitted to ask that question. It is not strictly a question for the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, but I should be grateful if he could confirm that those powers will be transferred to the new local authorities.
§ Lord Strathclyde
This has been a long debate. It is right that we should have a long debate on the subject because we are dealing with protection of the environment, which is very important. We dealt with that subject on the first clay of Committee and we are now dealing with it again. It is right that we should do so.
No doubt the Committee will be grateful if I do not follow the example set by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, as my poetry is far worse than his. But I should like to tell the noble Lord that if he sticks to poetry and keeps away from politics, I believe that he will be far more successful than he is being in pressing me to accept these amendments.
Perhaps it would be helpful if I said a little about Clause 53 and these amendments. The clause imposes an environmental duty on applicants for planning permission for a coal mining development. The duty is broadly equivalent to that which already applies to all applicants for planning permission for opencast coal and which in a slightly different form has applied to British Coal in respect of opencast proposals since 1958. When the duty was extended to licensed operators in 1990, the Government agreed in principle that it should be extended to deep mines when a suitable legislative opportunity arose. There could hardly be a more suitable opportunity than the present Bill. I am glad to be able to put this proposal to the Committee, extending to deep mines these well precedented duties.
The duty applies to the process of formulating proposals for any coal mining development. In future it will include proposals for deep mines as well as opencast mining. It requires anyone who proposes such a development, when drawing up his application for planning permission, to take account of the preservation of natural beauty and the other matters prescribed and to include in the proposals such measures as are reasonably 1048 practicable to mitigate any adverse effects that the proposed mining activities might have on natural beauty and the other matters.
There is a parallel duty on planning authorities, when considering the proposals put to them, to have regard to those principles and the extent to which the applicant has complied with his duties under this clause. That effectively links the duty into the planning system and provides such enforcement as is relevant.
As the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, rightly pointed out, Amendment No. 81 deals with planning authorities. The words of my noble friend Lord Crickhowell dealt with Amendment No. 83, to which I shall come in a moment. Amendment No. 81 would require planning authorities., when considering coal mining applications, to have regard to the desirability of avoiding nuisance to nearby residents in the form of dust, noise, vibration, lorry traffic, visual intrusion or loss of amenity, and the need to respond to the express concerns of those residents regarding the proposed development.
That is already provided for by the planning system. The planning authority, in arriving at its decision on any application, whatever the development may be, must take account of all material considerations. If there is a. case to be made in respect of some proposals that they might cause excessive or unacceptable nuisance to people living nearby, that would plainly be material and should be considered and given full weight by the planning authority. If there are any expressed concerns about a development, whether about these issues or any other, they too should be given proper consideration and full weight.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Lord Ezra
Perhaps the Minister will allow me to intervene to ask him to explain whether, under the present rules for granting planning permission, Clause 53(2) (a) applies. If we are to mention the desirability of the preservation of natural beauty, conservation of flora and so forth, the other points to which the amendment refers should also be mentioned. I was worried about the exclusion of one and the inclusion of the other. If neither had been included I would have been quite satisfied. But I did not see why there should be all that emphasis on natural beauty and none on personal amenity.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
Perhaps I can rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for the same reason. If the Minister is saying that these are matters which are covered by mineral planning guidance, why cannot they be transferred into the Bill?
§ Lord Strathclyde
Clause 53 deals with the protection of the environment. I was discussing and the amendment deals with the effects on human beings, which are material considerations. Under planning law material considerations must be taken into account. That is why the clause that appears in the Bill is necessary and the clause proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Ezra and Lord Morris, is not.
Perhaps I can go on to explain the other safeguards that have been built in. We recognise that there are particular concerns about many of the questions as they arise in relation to opencast coal developments. That is 1049 why the guidance to planning authorities—MPG3— specifically advises the authorities to consider the issues of visual impact, noise, blasting, dust, water and transportation. A substantial part of the guidance note —Annex D to the draft document published for consultation last December—is wholly taken up with advice to planning authorities on the potential problems in those areas and how they can be addressed.
The concerns raised by the Members of the Committee in this debate are serious and proper concerns; I do not deny that. But they are already fully addressed through the principle and practice of the planning system and the amendments add nothing. They are therefore otiose. There is no reason why Members should have known what I said, but I hope that it gives them some assurance.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
Perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to intervene again to ask him to confirm that the subject matter of Amendment No. 81 is included in the mineral planning guidance. However, the mineral planning guidance can be amended without parliamentary consent.
§ Lord Strathclyde
That is the position. Ministers decide on the kind of guidance but the guidance is always consulted upon and the guidance I mentioned is the kind of guidance I should have thought would have been welcome to the Committee.
I should like to speak briefly on the second amendment in this group, Amendment No. 81A, and the concerns that underlie it; that is, that the measures which might be thought reasonable for an applicant to include in his proposals should not be restrained by the particular financial circumstances of the applicant. In other words, the applicant should not be able to get away with environmental damage merely because he pleads poverty. It is a technical point, but I am advised that the reference to "that person" is designed to make the obligation more concrete, so that the measures that should be taken are those which are reasonable for that proposal and in all the circumstances relevant to it. There is no intention by the Government to provide an escape route or loophole; quite the contrary, we want to tighten up the situation.
Perhaps I can now deal with the third in this group of amendments which proposes a new clause. It would require the authority to impose further environmental or site restoration conditions on licences for developments which already have planning permission, in cases where the planning authority considers that the environmental protection offered by the existing permission is out of date. It might be helpful for me to turn to the words of my noble friend, Lord Crickhowell. I am grateful to him for his contribution this afternoon. I am delighted that he recognised the significance of the statement that I made in response to the first amendment that we dealt with in Committee last week. We return to the subject to some extent today. I am also delighted that he agrees with me that we should avoid confusing people as to which body has the proper role in dealing with these difficult and complicated issues. That is crucial.
1050 When we are trying to set up the Coal Authority we are not trying to get away from anything by not giving it the powers for environmental control. We are not giving it those powers because the NRA is already so important, particularly in dealing with the protection of water. My noble friend raised further issues which I shall not go into in detail now. I shall consider them further because they are extremely important.
§ Lord Peston
Perhaps I can interrupt the noble Lord. I appreciate he wants to get on. However, the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, raised a matter which echoed a point I raised last Thursday; that is, the question of where liability does lie and should lie. The Minister and his noble friend Lord Goschen were at pains to point out that I did not understand the Bill. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, say that he too had had difficulty in understanding it. But I made the mistake, which the Minister was at pains to point out, that I assumed that we could distinguish between liability for the past and liability for the present; one would lie with the Coal Authority and the other with the new licensees. I was then told that I was completely mistaken; I did not understand the Bill. I interpreted that to mean that the Bill is sillier than even I could imagine.
The reason I raise the matter at this point is that the choice of words of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, led me to think—he clearly has more contact with the Government than I do—that the Government may well have thought that this rational distinction between the present and the past was worth considering or, even better, were still thinking about it. I am interrupting the Minister to ask him—I do not expect him to be as nasty to his noble friend as he was to me—to confirm that what he said to me (namely, that I did not understand the Bill and that the Government were not going to do it) he is about to say to his noble friend.
§ Lord Strathclyde
I am sorry if the noble Lord felt that I was being nasty to him. I was not. On these occasions I try to be as helpful as possible and, in dealing with these complicated issues, ensure that everybody understands what the Bill is trying to do.
What the noble Lord said gives me an opportunity to deal with the question of liabilities and where responsibilities lie. As well as one of our fundamental principles being that we should not give the Coal Authority powers which already exist elsewhere, through government agencies or local authorities, because that would confuse the issue, so with the question of liability we are trying to put the responsibility where it should lie. Those who are committing the liabilities will then know their responsibilities and should act responsibly when they are carrying out the activities which create the pollution. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, does not disagree with me on that.
§ Lord Peston
I understood the noble Lord to say last week that the Government would draw a circle around the pits—that was his analogy—and that the licensees would then be responsible for everything within that circle, including what had happened in the past. I took the opposite view. I took the view—because it sounded 1051 much more sensible to me —that the licensee would be responsible for everything that he then did in the future but that the taxpayer would be responsible for the past. That was my judgment of the rational way to approach the matter. I was then told that I did not understand the Bill. I do now understand it but I think that what is proposed is irrational, which is what I also thought the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, was saying. Is there any hope of persuading the Government to abandon this irrationality so that the taxpayer would accept responsibility for what had been done in his name in the past and the licensees would be responsible only for what they would do in the future? That is why I raise the matter now. I was going to come back to it on Report but as the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, raised it rather effectively, I decided not to let the Minister off the hook at this point.
§ Lord Strathclyde
I am delighted not to be let off the hook and I am quite happy to explain the point. I was about to launch into my explanation when the noble Lord interrupted me.
I shall try to deal with as many of the liabilities as I can because they are all important. The main concern that noble Lords have rightly expressed is on the whole question of water pollution and how it relates to mines that have already been abandoned, either recently or in the more distant past.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
Are we drawing a distinction between the responsibility for subsidence damage to the surface of the land and the damage caused by the pollution of the controlled waters through the escape of water from abandoned mines? They are two distinct situations and I do not want to blur the distinction between them.
§ Lord Strathclyde
How Members of the Committee opposite can possibly hope to understand what I am talking about when they continually interrupt me, I do not know. If I am allowed to finish my statement, I suspect that it will all become much clearer to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, as it did to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on Thursday night when we dealt with the question of subsidence.
Water pollution presents the main problem because it is most numerous and because it is the older workings which tend to be the shallowest and most likely to influence the surface, whereas modern underground mining is generally much deeper. Under the Bill, all these abandoned mines will automatically become the property of the Coal Authority and, as I explained in my statement of 26th April, the authority will take over British Coal's existing role as a responsible and environmentally aware public custodian. That applies, for instance, as the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, is pleased to know, to all deep mines in the Durham area, where there are no continuing deep mines. It will apply in most other parts of the country. If continued pumping of minewaters is necessary in order to prevent serious pollution, then pumping will continue. That, I believe, is the assurance which most concerned people are seeking and which the Government are quite rightly giving.
1052 The Coal Authority will also own the freehold of the mines that are continuing in production and it will lease them on a long-term basis to the mining companies which will be operating them. It seems reasonable to the Government that those companies should accept responsibility for meeting the associated environmental obligations. That requirement is set out in the draft leases which are available to noble Lords. Under the Bill the Coal Authority has an obligation to vet the financial standing of those companies in relation to all the obligations that they will be taking on before it licenses them to mine. The leases also provide, in the longer term after mining has ceased, that the responsibility for the mine can be returned to the Coal Authority but only after the mining company has taken all reasonable steps to protect the authority from continuing liabilities. That is a plain and straightforward arrangement and that is. what most noble Lords would have expected.
Perhaps I may deal with the point made by my noble friend about the memorandum put out by Rothschild on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, which is available in the Library. It shows the coalfields as divided into five geographical areas which are coloured yellow. That reflects my honourable friend's announcement that British Coal's business is to be offered for sale in five regional packages. Unfortunately, it has given some people the mistaken impression that the privatised companies will have mining rights and responsibilities right across these huge areas. That is absolutely not the case. What is being sold is simply the individual deep mines and specific opencast sites. Those cover only a minute proportion of the geographical area shown in the memorandum and do not include any of the derelict mines which, as I have said, are undoubtedly the main cause of anxiety. That is the misunderstanding which my noble friend Lord Crickhowell mentioned. I hope that I have clarified it.
The noble Lord, Lord Peston, talked about present and past liabilities, particularly in respect of subsidence. The noble Lord said that what is proposed is irrational because the bidding mining company accepts all the past subsidence liabilities, including British Coal's. The rational argument as to why we have done that is that it may sometimes be difficult to divide past liabilities from present liabilities and therefore it is easier for the mining company to accept all liabilities for subsidence at whatever time it was initially caused and whether or not it was caused by that company's coal milling. I hope that that is a clear statement. The noble Lord may still think that it is irrational but at least he will understand the basis on which we are going forward on the question of privatisation.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Lord Crickhowell
I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way on this point. I do not want to have my views represented to the Committee completely by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. However, we do have some common ground in our anxiety on this point. I have no difficulty with him. Indeed, I wholly agree with his view that the licensee should assume liabilities for his future operations and the normal environmental obligations which go with that work.
1053 I do not at this stage seek any amendment to the Water Act and the section about knowingly permitting discharges, but it is possible that British Coal might in the past have taken steps which caused pollution and that that pollution will flow on and, under the principle described by my noble friend, become the responsibility of the new licensee. I do not see any great difficulty in principle with saying that the new licensee is responsible for the future, but if he can establish, or a third party can establish, that that pollution was caused by the predecessor body—by British Coal—that liability should fall on the Coal Authority. It is a past liability; it may be a very substantial one; and my noble friend quite reasonably says that it may be very difficult to separate past and present liabilities.
However, if one simply imposes the new liabilities from the moment the licence is issued, that is a matter for the courts. It will be for the licensee or a third party to prove that the pollution was caused by the predecessor body, or to apportion that damage. I do not see anything in principle against that. My noble friend has decided not to go down that road but there is no reason in principle why he should not go down that road. I am bound to say that I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that it would be a better way to proceed.
§ Lord Renton
Before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I may ask him to consider this point. In replying to the very first debate of the Committee stage my noble friend Lord Strathclyde very wisely said that continuity was one of the vital factors that we had to consider in the changes being made by the Bill. That would seem to support the view of my noble friend.
§ Lord Crickhowell
I am grateful to my noble friend for that. I have another point which may appeal to my noble friend the Minister. It will make the privatisation easier. There can be no doubt that potential licensees are anxious about inheriting a very large liability—expenses already incurred by the predecessor body. They have expressed that view. I believe that this quite simple change would do something to alleviate that anxiety and make it a more successful privatisation.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My noble friend shares with me the desire to make the privatisation successful. To some extent we are guided by the advice which we are given by Rothschild on this question and of course by using our own common sense. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, does not believe that we have very much of that, but we are seeking to find the right solution. My noble friend Lord Renton was absolutely right. I used the word "continuity" in response during the debate we had on the first day of Committee. It was in that respect that I made the statement about the Coal Authority's responsibilities when it took over the assets of British Coal. That is a very important point.
My noble friend Lord Crickhowell may well have brought forward something which we need to consider. Throughout the course of the Committee stage I have never been afraid of considering proposals which have been put forward by my noble friend, and we shall do so. 1054 But that is not if they are going to muddle or confuse. Privatisation is not the primary issue. The real primary issue is to make sure that the environment is protected as well as possible and that everyone knows what their responsibilities are. It is also to ensure that a potential environmental liability is not caused because people do not realise that they are responsible.
§ Lord Peston
Can I interrupt the noble Lord for the very last time? The reason that I intervened originally was precisely because I thought that the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, led to a possible opening. I was not seeking to argue for him because he argues very effectively for himself. I believe that the Government's approach is not the most rational way forward and that is why my interpretation of the Bill was wrong. I had assumed that the Bill was more sensible than it is. In making his remarks to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, is the Minister saying that, if one can put up an argument about reliability, which I do not restrict to substance—it is a general question as to how we treat liability which has nothing to do with substance per se —it is not too late at this stage of the deliberations for one to seek to persuade the Government that perhaps this part of the Bill could be changed? That is the only reason I intervened in the first place. Have the Government any degree of open-mindedness on the question of where we should place liability or has Rothschild decided that for the Government?
§ Lord Strathclyde
The noble Lord, Lord Peston, has misunderstood these aspects of the Bill in the past. I hope that he will not do so in future. However, I believe that I bear some responsibility for not making the Bill absolutely plain from the start. In considering what my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said, I bow in his general direction because he is chairman of the NRA and he knows what he is talking about. That is why I am delighted that he has accepted the principle behind my statement which I made on the first day of Committee.
I do not wish to leave the door ajar. There is perhaps a very minor chink through which some refining by my noble friend or some advice from him would be helpful. But we are not going to rewrite these provisions in the Bill because I believe in the correctness of our central concern, which was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on the second day of Committee; namely, that there should be one person to claim against. There should be no confusion as to who has caused liability.
The noble Lord was using the point in a rather different argument because he said that the Coal Authority should be liable and therefore the taxpayer. I believe that the operator should be responsible. The more responsibility we put on the operator, the more likely he is going to behave in a way which minimises his liability. There is absolutely no confusion as to what his liability is because when he bids he accepts all the liability within his area of responsibility. That is a very important principle. It is one on which the noble Lord and I could spend a great deal of time in debate. It is not entirely appropriate for it to be debated with these amendments, so perhaps I should continue to talk about the amendments that we are dealing with and particularly the third group.
1055 There is clearly potential for concern where planning permissions are some decades old and may have been granted at a time when expectations as to environmental protection and site restoration were very different from those of today. This is, however, unlikely to be an issue as regards opencast sites. Because of the relatively short life of these developments, all the planning permissions are pretty modern. Only two operating British Coal sites have planning permission more than 10 years' old; and all these sites are subject to modern site restoration conditions. By contrast, a few operating deep mines have planning consents dating from the 1950s and 1960s; and a significant number of deep mines, having already been in use before 1948 when the modern planning regime was introduced, are at present subject to no site restoration conditions at all. We are certainly of the view that proper restoration conditions should be imposed on these mines before they are privatised. The Government's proposals on this matter are set out in Clause 54 which follows next.
As regards sites which do have a planning permission, I have not been persuaded that there are major concerns which need to be addressed in this way. The Government have already taken steps, notably in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, to extend the powers of local authorities to deal with environmental nuisance, and that bites on coal mines as on any other kind of activity or undertaking. Also, the scope of the planning system to impose new conditions on longstanding minerals developments, particularly coal developments, has been significantly enlarged over the years. The Government have recently issued a consultation paper on the reform of old mineral commissions.
Ultimately, if a planning authority feels there is a strong case for them to impose further new conditions, the planning regime does provide the means for that, although such action could give rise to a requirement to pay compensation.
I believe it is clear that the updating of old commissions is an undertaking which is already far advanced by other means. I am not persuaded that there is a case for the measure proposed in the amendment. I have explained to the Committee in the context of earlier amendments that it is not our intention to make the authority an environmental regulator.
Amendment No. 83B, which is the last in this group, provides that responsibility for environmental liabilities, which have been caused by a licensee who has been wound up, is to fall on the Coal Authority. Environmental liabilities are specifically defined to include subsidence liabilities. Not only is this amendment unnecessary, but it does not go as far as the Bill in transferring these subsidence liabilities to the Coal Authority. It is unnecessary because Clause 43(3) (b) already provides that where there is no licence holder and therefore no area of responsibility—which is the case when the former licence holder has been wound up—subsidence liabilities are to fall to the authority.
I suggest to the Committee that these amendments are unnecessary. I hope that the noble Lord will see fit to withdraw them. I apologise for the fact that it has 1056 been rather a long debate, but we did deal with the very important environmental issue in the middle. I hope that the Committee will forgive me.
§ Lord Dormand of Easington
The Minister said that, if we on this side of the Committee were patient and did not intervene, all would be revealed. I have one question to put to him which has not been asked. He said that my noble friend's amendment was otiose because it is contained in other legislation. Can the Minister tell us what that legislation is? If one is to have opencast coal mining, it is impossible to avoid nuisance to,nearby residents in the form of dust, noise, vibration, lorry traffic, visual intrusion or loss of amenity".Anybody who has lived in an area where there is opencast mining knows that it is impossible to avoid such things.
Perhaps I may give the Minister one brief example. I think he will know that all lorries are supposed to be covered when passing through towns but it never happens—or perhaps in only about one in 10 lorryloads. I am not treating this matter lightly or facetiously. If the Minister could tell us what the magical precautions are that are already provided in other legislation, many of us would be delighted to hear them.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
It is not a case so much of other legislation but of the whole system of our planning regulations. They are designed specifically to deal with the kind of issues that have been raised in the amendment. The noble Lord says, "Ah well, the law is being broken", but it is the responsibility of the local authority to deal with that. There is a myriad of town and country planning legislation to deal with such issues either specifically in detail or in general, allowing the planning system, through the policy guidance system, to come up with the finer details. It is up to the local authority to impose its will once it has decided whether planning permission should be given and what conditions should apply to the giving of that planning permission.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
I wonder whether the Minister will be good enough to answer the specific question that I addressed to him: Where an old planning permission has been granted to the Coal Board without the need for a bond to cover the restoration liability, can the local authority require the transferee to lodge a bond before the licence is implemented?
§ Lord Strathclyde
The Coal Authority must make absolutely certain that the company is financially viable. That requirement seems to me to deal with the problem raised by the noble Lord. If the company then goes bankrupt and gives up its licences, as it would, and the mine becomes abandoned, the responsibility falls to the Coal Authority.
§ Lord Morris of Castle Morris
We have had a long and, I think, a very useful debate. It has lasted one hour and 23 minutes so far. It has been a better debate—if I may dare to say so—than most of us read as having taken place in another place. We have in particular teased out the matter of where responsibilities for 1057 environmental controls lie in a way which has brought a great deal to light which was previously hidden. We have explored the role of the NRA. We have dredged that river with enthusiasm and to considerable depth.
The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, reminded us that considerations of natural beauty and the peaceful lives of living people should not and need not be incompatible. I am grateful to him for his wise and well informed support, as I am also for the support of my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies. He raised the question of after-care and asked why that word is absent from Amendment No. 82. He is quite right to draw our attention to that matter. The answer is quite simple. I forgot to put it in. I am grateful to my noble friend for his vigilance on that matter. As one leading statesman of the Labour Party said to me not so very long ago, "When it comes to command of detail, a Pontypridd solicitor has no rival on this earth".
The Minister said that Amendment No. 81 is not necessary because it is already provided for in the planning procedures. I am grateful for that. I shall need to consider it, but it would not cause the heavens to fall if, even if that is the case, it were to be repeated in this Bill. We seem, all of us, not to have noticed it so far and, goodness knows, there has been no obvious attempt to make the Bill brief, laconic or crisp. The Minister's reply to Amendment No. 81A was much more reassuring and I am grateful to him for that.
On Amendment No. 82, the Minister stressed the importance of the NRA and made, I think, a useful and helpful point, but so often the Minister's defence against the amendment was that it is all the responsibility of somebody else somewhere else or, "It is all there in the Act of 1888". We, I think, would like time and again to see the provisions here, in this Bill. It would make it easier for all those who have to deal with these matters after the Bill becomes an Act.
However, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part so enthusiastically and at such great length and, for the moment at least—although unquestionably we shall go on talking about this today and shall revisit it at Report stage—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 81A not moved.]
§ Clause 53 agreed to.
§ Clause 54 agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 82 not moved.]
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley moved Amendment No. 83:
§ After Clause 54, insert the following new clause:
§ ("Limitation on enforceability of conditions
§ No conditions attached to any planning permission for coal mining operations shall be enforceable against any person other than the licence holder for the relevant land, the Coal Authority or, where it retains an interest in the land, the Corporation.").
§ The noble Lord said: We stay on the thorny problem of liabilities, so I fear some repetition. My understanding of the problem is now much clearer since I studied the remarks made by my noble friend, in particular on Amendment No. 1 at col. 544 of Hansard. However, I still have the odd problem on which I seek 1058 clarification. I was fascinated by the discussion on the previous amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and I shall study the report carefully when it comes out.
§ The purpose of Amendment No. 83 is to protect landowners and occupiers from enforcement action. Planning conditions bind the mine so that if the mining company defaults and the land reverts to the owner, the planning authority can enforce the restoration or other conditions against the owner. That could be very expensive and it is necessary for protection to be provided for landowners and agricultural occupiers against problems that might arise from mining activities. What I am trying to say is that the costs, the liabilities, come from mining activity, so I believe that the costs should be met by the mining companies or those who are responsible for the historic legacy. I suspect that this is in line with some of the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Crickhowell on the previous amendments.
§ I return to the question which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, put to me during discussions on Amendment No. 20—not least because my noble friend Lord Strathclyde told your Lordships at col. 639 of Hansard that I should look at Clause 54 for the answer. My question was—and, indeed is—as follows: If an owner of land is sent a bill for pollution not covered by the 1991 Act—perhaps relating to methane or dust caused by a disused mine—to whom does he send the bill for payment? I think that it is either the Coal Authority or the last mining company, but the problem occurs if the company is no more or is insolvent. I think that my noble friend said at col. 44 of Hansard that it goes to the Coal Authority. I think, again, that in the great majority of cases the liability falls on the Coal Authority, but can my noble friend confirm that that is the case if the Coal Authority has disposed of its landowning rights and if operations have been transferred by the Secretary of State before the restructuring date or, indeed, direct to the private sector on the restructuring dates?
§ Like my noble friend Lord Crickhowell, I think it vitally important that the Committee should have clear answers to those questions to know how we can proceed. I interpret my noble friend's remarks as meaning that in all cases the bill that I will be sent as a residual landowner will be settled by the Coal Authority. I just want the simple answer "yes". I beg to move.
§ Lord Renton
I hope that no intervention of mine will prevent my noble friend the Minister from giving the simple answer wished for by my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley. I should like briefly to emphasise one or two points. First, we should acknowledge on the principle of continuity that the Government are providing that the present planning law, in general, including that relating to coal mining, shall continue. In Clause 54, to which we have just agreed, and other clauses, helpful and useful adjustments are made, in effect, to that planning law. But the amendment is valuable, because we must be left in no doubt as to who is to have responsibility for complying with planning 1059 conditions imposed upon British Coal on a mine which is no longer being mined but where the consequences of mining can continue indefinitely, or where coal is still being mined by British Coal and may be transferred under licence to an independent operator.
It would be sad if, in all our efforts to preserve continuity of responsibility, especially for environmental damage, we did not make it clear that the conditions granted in the past for planning permission were to be enforced against the licence holder, the new Coal Authority, or, where appropriate—it will not often be so—against British Coal. The key factor is one that my noble friend Lord Stanley has mentioned; that is, the passing of the ownership of the coal. He was right to say that we need an assurance that no assets will be transferred from British Coal before the restructuring date. On this question of the transfer of responsibilities, that is a key factor.
§ Lord Gisborough
I should like to raise another point in support of the amendment. A landowner might be approached about mining by a company. He would take legal advice. Unless the point is tied up, his lawyer might say that it is not safe to go ahead because any liability that might arise in the years ahead could devolve upon the owner. The owner might say that the risk of that liability is too great and that he will not go ahead, in which case he could be forced by a CRO to go ahead and then find himself with liabilities. That would be unfair. The matter must be tied up so that, if an agreement is to be made, a lawyer will advise that it is safe to do so.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ The Earl of Lytton
As my name is to the amendment, I shall speak briefly in support of it. It is the third instance in a litany of voices all saying, "Please not us", and not least the landowning, property-owning and occupiers' interests. The amendment rests upon the fact that landowners and property occupiers are the weak party, in the sense that they are unable to assess risk, at any rate not at any reasonable cost. They are faced ultimately with powers of compulsion. We have a changed situation in that we start off with British Coal and we end up with a Coal Authority, an operator, and various other individuals, all of whom in their own way, might have to shoulder some part of the liability that was formerly contained within the one entity.
We all fear falling between two stools. That is known in the trade as "risk management", I believe. My children know it as "pass the parcel", but they do it for different reasons. We do not know what sort of covenant the operators will he able to offer. So while I take the point, and see the logic in the Minister saying that the liabilities must, so far as possible, fall on those operators, it is only fair to say that it is an untried and untested entity. It may be a large, substantial PLC. We just do not know, but we would all feel much happier if, rather than have to sift through ancient and modern pieces of legislation and to tie in all sorts of regulations from planning law., environmental law and elsewhere, we could have some sort of statement.
1060 If it is too complex a matter for the Minister to give the answer today for which his noble friend Lord Stanley was asking, perhaps he could ask his right honourable friend whether there could be some sort of comprehensive statement on how the liabilities and duties will fall, including all the "what if" scenarios about which everyone is concerned. There is a proper balance to be struck here between commercial activities and the protection of individuals, the environment, and all the other things that beset commercial life.
As the Government are setting in place new commercial entities to take on the running of these mines and to accept the liabilities, I feel that that is where the commercial mainspring lies. It is from that angle, as promoter of the legislation, that it is reasonable to look to the Government for a clear statement setting out what they envisage in those circumstances.
§ Lord Strathclyde
I have spent a considerable part of this afternoon and time on previous occasions in Committee trying to explain where the liability lies. I believe that everything I have said is clear and consistent. I point the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, to some of the statements that I have made. I shall not go through it all over again in reply to my noble friend Lord Stanley because that might well try the patience of the Committee. However, I want things to be as simple as possible inasmuch as dealing with some of the legal principles allows them to be simple. Of course I want to maintain the principle of continuity, which I have already outlined and which was mentioned again by my noble friend Lord Renton.
Let me make it clear that I understand the concerns behind the amendment and the new clause proposed by Amendment No. 83. I do not believe that it would be effective because, as many Members of the Committee will be aware, the basic premise of planning law is that the permission runs with the land. I do not believe that on its own the amendment would be able to defeat that basic principle. So while I understand the concerns, I believe that landowners will find more reassurance in the authority's duty to satisfy itself on the financial capacity of licence applicants.
The second amendment would provide that responsibility for environmental responsibilities.
§ Lord Strathclyde
We are dealing with Amendments Nos. 83 and 83A. No we are not. We are dealing only with Amendment No. 83. So there is no second amendment and the question does not arise. I shall deal with that point next time.
My noble friend asked me to whom he should send the bill. I am not clear under what circumstances my noble friend is likely to receive a bill demanding money for pollution. The regulatory bodies are unlikely to pursue my noble friend unless he has some relevant responsibility. For the sake of argument, let us assume. that the pollution in question is the fault of a coal mine operator or is connected to his activities. in that case, my noble friend should send any such bill that he receives to the operator, who will deal with it.
What if the operator should be insolvent?
§ Lord Strathclyde
That is precisely the question that I asked. What happens if the operator should be insolvent? In that case, my noble friend should send his bill to the receiver, who will take over the responsibilities of the operator. If the operator has been wound up and the lease terminated, my noble friend should send the bill to the Coal Authority, which will have responsibility for the mine as owner. The Bill makes that clear in the earlier clauses.
§ Lord Peston
I do not want to repeat the debate on liability. One of the many excellent features about the Minister's contributions is that they are always extremely clear. What worries us, however, is that when we understand the Bill we are more concerned than we were when it was obscure. But that is by the way. Essentially, the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, had a single purpose. He asked whether the owner of the land, who might have been willingly or unwillingly involved, could ever become liable not for pollution but for restoration. The key word is "restoration".
The Minister was asked to give a straight answer; yes or no. I take it that the answer is no; that the owner of the land can never become the person who has to meet the costs of a restoration. Is that what the Minister said? I do not want to repeat the debate on liability because I do not regard this as one of the liability issues. The principle of the Bill is that the mining people are responsible. The noble Lord, Lord Stanley, asked whether he could ever become responsible. Is the Minister able to tell him that he can never be responsible for restoration costs?
§ Lord Strathclyde
I understood my noble friend to ask who would pay if he received a bill for environmental responsibilities and he did not consider that he was responsible. I explained the process that should be gone through, which ended up with the Coal Authority.
§ Lord Renton
I am afraid that several doubts have been raised in the answers given by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. Let us, first, take the case in which the operator goes bust. Alas, we all know that sometimes there are advantages in going into liquidation—to escape one's liabilities. If in those circumstances the liability will be passed to the surface owner, who had no responsibility and perhaps did not want the mining to take place below his land, that would be most unfair.
There are other issues but, first, I must ask my noble friend to answer a question that my noble friend Lord Stanley and I raised. What about the circumstances which continue indefinitely? Mining may have ceased some years ago but mining subsidence continues possibly for ever in one way or another. There are other unfortunate consequences of mining which was done by the British Coal Board but which has ceased and which we should be prepared to anticipate.
Clearly, it would be most unfair on the owner or occupier of the surface of the land to be made responsible under a previous ancient planning permission with conditions attached. Therefore, the 1062 amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Stanley, is of vital importance. I do not believe that the Minister has answered what I describe as a key factor. It may be legalistic to describe it as such, but in practice it is relevant. It is the date of the transfer of the ownership of the coal. Is that to be before or after restructuring? It would be helpful if my noble friend were able to answer that.
§ Lord Strathclyde
The first point that my noble friend made is important and we have returned to it time and time again. I agree that it would be unfair if the liabilities fell on the owners of the land. Quite clearly, they are the responsibilities of the Coal Authority which accepts all liabilities from all previous mining operations, whether carried out by British Coal or any other coal miner. Indeed, a Roman mine might be causing subsidence and the Coal Authority will accept responsibility for that.
As regards the date of transfer, I make no pretence that I do not fully understand the point made by my noble friend. However, there will be a vesting date on which the property assets and liabilities of British Coal will be transferred to the Coal Authority.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
I wish, first, to refer to the remark made by my noble friend Lord Gisborough. I raised that point when I moved my Amendment No. 74, which dealt with CROs. The more I listen to Members of the Committee, the more I realise that CROs have many hidden problems and that we should be better off without them. I am sure that we must resolve that matter.
I refer to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. The question I asked referred to liabilities, which included restorations. I do not quite know how to conclude, except to say that I feel I received from my noble friend the same answer as nearly 40 years ago I received from my wife when I asked her to marry me. I shall have to do the same with him; that is pursue him at a later stage.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 6.30 p.m.
Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 83A:
After Clause 54, insert the following new clause:
§ ("Escape of polluted water
§ .—(1) In granting any licence for the exploration for or the mining of coal the Authority shall require the licensee to take such steps as shall be determined by the National Rivers Authority to prevent the escape of polluted water from the mine both during the operation of the mine and after its abandonment.
§ (2) In making any Scheme under section 12 of this Act in relation to the exploration for or the mining of coal the Secretary of State shall be subject to the same obligation under subsection (1) above as the Authority.").
§ The noble Lord said: Members of the Committee on all sides may consider that this is the time to go for a cup of tea or even for a pre-prandial aperitif because I propose to thank and to congratulate Members on the Benches opposite, starting with the noble Lord the Minister. That may be found to be extremely boring —except to him—and it may take some time.
§ Before moving Amendment No. 83A, I wish to record my grateful welcome of the Minister's 1063 announcement last Tuesday relating to the safeguards against the threat of water pollution from abandoned mines. That is what Amendment No. 83A is all about. At last we have a clear government recognition of this potentially appalling risk to the environment, and in particular to the woefully inadequate legal measures to prevent mine water pollution killing off vast tracts of this nation's rivers and streams. We welcome the Minister's commitment to maintain pumping in the Durham coal field. My noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington will alert us to the particular problem of the Durham coal field.
§ Equally, I welcome the Minister's commitment to similar action in other cases where there is risk. I refer to what he said in col. 542 of the Official Report of 26th April. The problem is not confined to Durham; it exists in every area where coal is or has been mined. It is illustrated all too clearly in the recent report of the National Rivers Authority. I salute its chairman, my countryman, the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, on what can be described only as a most thorough and illuminating account of the problems that we must face from the massive round of mine closures that have taken place in recent years.
§ The NRA report states that there are significant water quality problems from coal mine discharges as far afield as the North West, Wales, Yorkshire, the South East, Northumbria and the Trent. Some 200 kilometres of rivers, streams and brooks are affected. The situation will get worse if pumping and other water treatment ceases at mines which have recently closed or are scheduled for closure.
§ I illustrate that point with an example which was brought to my attention only today. It concerns a local beauty spot, a popular museum and country park complex in South Yorkshire —Worsborough Reservoir near Barnsley. In October of last year, only seven months ago, the pumps in nearby mine workings were switched off. Now—and I repeat, only seven months later—the reservoir and nearby rivers are literally dying. Algae are proliferating and fish are being killed off almost completely.
§ British Coal, no doubt in good faith, relinquished its responsibility for that ecological disaster—for that is what it is turning out to be—last October when it switched off the pumps. That was an act which under the present crazy legal situation it was perfectly entitled to do. The problem was too hot for Yorkshire Water to handle. It could not be persuaded to take over the pumping, despite being offered the pumping facilities free of charge. It said that the liabilities were far too large to take any part in it.
§ There are also severe implications for the Worsborough Reservoir. The amount of water draining into it is much less and the quality of that water is, to say the least, pretty awful. If that was not enough, the lack of pumping will affect local water tables; it will lead to a change in landscape habitat; and will affect mature woodland within that area.
§ So what now? That valued asset of one of the hardest hit areas of the coalfield is left—if I may coin the phrase —high and dry. I mention that and give that illustration to underline the value and importance of the Minister's 1064 proposals on this issue. We look forward to the Department of the Environment's review of contaminated land and liabilities, the results of which are due later this year. Not only do I welcome the Minister's proposal to maintain pumping in Durham and elsewhere—and I hope that he will tell the Committee that he has requested the NRA to compile immediately a list of urgent cases—but I pay tribute also to his announcement that the Government will expect the new Coal Authority to go beyond the minimum environmental duties imposed upon it by the Bill.
§ Furthermore, I support fully the requirement that the Coal Authority and the new operators must consult the NRA about the consequences of abandoning mines in the future and about the preventive measures that they must take.
§ Amid that welter of congratulations, perhaps I may make a few additional suggestions. At present an informal agreement exists between British Coal and the NRA that British Coal will give 14 days' notice to the authority before switching off any pumps. I should like an assurance from the Minister that, with immediate effect, no pumps will be turned off by British Coal or after its dissolution by the Coal Authority or by private operators without the express authorisation of the NRA. That is the first point.
§ Secondly, I should welcome an assurance that the NRA will be asked to investigate all pumping operations that have ceased since October 1992. I select that date, the date of Mr. Heseltine's fateful pit closure announcement, not for political reasons but because it marked the start of the recent massive round of pit closures which, if I interpret the NRA report correctly, could well result in an equally massive round of environmental damage from mine water pollution.
§ Thirdly, where the NRA authorises a cessation of pumping, the pumping stations should be maintained in operational order and nearby waters regularly monitored until the NRA is satisfied that there is no future risk. The continued care and maintenance of pumping stations will incur modest costs at the very most. But prevention is better than cure and, what is more, prevention is cheaper than cure.
§ Fourthly, in his statement the Minister said that a specific budget for the purpose of dealing with the problem would be made available to the Coal Authority when it is appointed, whenever that may be. Again, that is to be welcomed. But what about the problem now? Will the Minister outline the resources which will now be made available to British Coal to maintain the present mechanisms and, indeed, to save the Worsborough reservoirs of our nation, because there are many examples of this nationwide? Abandoned mines, as we are coming to see after this afternoon's debate, are very unpredictable creatures. We should be optimistic if we expected them to adhere to any government timetable.
§ I realise that in those four requests I have given the Minister quite an extensive shopping list. Obviously, I do not expect an immediate response, certainly not across the Dispatch Box. However, I look forward to a 1065 reply from the Minister, either verbally at our convenience or in writing, if possible well before Report stage.
§ I leave the acute, specific problems in the Durham coalfield to my noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington, although the Minister will not be surprised to learn that in the view of the Durham County Council his assurances fall far short of what is considered to be necessary to safeguard the environment.
§ That brings me smoothly to Amendment No. 83A, which I am moving. I am speaking also to Amendment No. 93. Amendment No. 83A is a new clause which provides that a comprehensive plan is prepared to deal with mine water before operations start; and that is important. That will include work during the operation of a mine and will allow for proper decommissioning after it has been worked. It will be comparable with the process of after-care agreements between opencast operators and local planning authorities. The provision for the complete restoration of the site, including the treatment of mine water where that is necessary, will be a necessary condition for the granting of planning permission. I wish to see it all signed, sealed, settled and delivered before operations start.
§ Although the NRA is currently consulted at the planning stage, if I understand the matter correctly, those consultations cover only the active life of the mine. They do not include the impact of either the operation or the abandonment of the mine on the water environment. Provisions in the local minerals plan could ensure that an abandonment plan is drawn up for each mine.
I believe that I am right to say that that change would be supported by the NRA, although the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, will correct me if I am wrong, because it says in the report:
Consideration must also be given to changes to the planning system with regard to the opening, or re-opening, of mines in order that full provision is made in advance for its aftercare with respect to groundwater rebound".
That is from the Abandoned Mines and the Water Environment 1994 report at page 42. With what I take to be a powerful supporting statement, I beg to move.
§ Lord Dormand of Easington
I shall speak to Amendment No. 93, which is grouped with this amendment. I shall not repeat what I said about the County Durham position on Second Reading except to say that much of it was based on this splendid document called Coal Industry Bill Minewater Pollution which was produced by Durham County Council. I am glad to say that on the front it states:Briefing for the House of Lords".Sometimes the House of Lords is not referred to on the briefs which we receive.
Perhaps I may return to the specific amendment. Amendments to the Water Resources Act 1991 are necessary to renew the exemptions for pollution arising from abandoned mines so far as they relate to British Coal and the Coal Authority. Section 85 of the Water Resources Act 1991 created the offence of polluting controlled water; namely, rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, groundwater and coastal waters.
1066 However, Section 89(3) provided an exemption by permitting water from an abandoned mine to enter controlled waters. Section 161 of the Water Resources Act 1991 gave the National Rivers Authority the power to carry out works to prevent or remedy pollution and recover the costs. However, Section 161(4) provided an exemption from the NRA's right to obtain reimbursement of costs by permitting water from an abandoned mine to enter controlled waters. Those exemptions make the question of responsibility for mine water discharges unclear and should not apply to British Coal and the Coal Authority.
Ministers keep repeating, as, indeed, we heard again today, that British Coal's liabilities will transfer to the Coal Authority. But they deliberately ignore the fact that British Coal is exempted from liability for permitting —I emphasise the word "permitting"—pollution from abandoned mines. Causing pollution gives rise to liability. Therefore, it can be seen that there is immense scope for dispute and expensive litigation. British Coal has consistently denied liability, even when it has undertaken remedial works. Thus, the liability to be transferred is heavily circumscribed.
We cannot rely on British Coal's previous, so-called, "good neighbour" policy, because it will no longer have the resources, both in terms of policy and, more importantly, in terms of manpower, to take action. The Coal Authority is primarily a licensing body and is not involved in operations as British Coal has been. Therefore, the responsibility to take action cannot be left to the goodwill of those two bodies: they must be made legally liable for pollution from abandoned mines.
Members of the Committee will be aware that the NRA is the agency which has the responsibility to deal with pollution of controlled waters and that, as I said earlier, includes rivers, coastal waters and ground water. The NRA has just published a report entitled, Abandoned Mines and the Water Environment, to which my noble friend referred. It describes both the potential and actual environmental damage resulting from abandoned mines and the legal and practical difficulties which the NRA faces in its efforts to prevent and clean up associated pollution. In view of the widespread closing of pits, the Government must give the most urgent and serious consideration to that report.
In North-East England, the NRA is faced with 15 significant discharges and about 100 discharges in total. Those are the discharges from one area and there are 57 areas defined in the report. That gives an indication of the measure of the problem. It is crazy that an industry, when in operation, has its discharges strictly regulated and yet, when it comes to an end, leaves a legacy of poor water quality and has no legal responsibility for the damage that it causes.
I find it incredible that the Government are treating the matter with some indifference. The circumstances from every point of view cry out—and this is the important point—for specific legislative action. They say that the Coal Authority will take over British Coal's current responsibilities for dealing with the water discharges from coal mines, except where liability has been passed on to the private sector, including licensed operators.
1067 Does British Coal's current responsibility include that matter? It appears not, in so far as it has consistently said that it deals with the matter only on a "good neighbour" basis. Further, it is certain there will be massive responsibilities to be faced by the Coal Authority. In our Second Reading speeches, many of us said that it is by no means certain that the authority will have either the resources or the expertise to deal with such an important matter.
It is for that reason that I asked the Minister to clarify a statement he made in his speech on the first day of Committee on 26th April (at col. 541). I should say that he has most kindly and promptly agreed to do so. I share the welcome that was given to the statement; indeed, it has been welcomed by Members from ail sides of the Chamber. However, I should like to look at it in a little more detail before I put one specific question to the Minister. I should like to remind Members of the Committee that the Minister said:A high priority should be attached to tackling situations such as that in Durham. There, on the best advice at present available, it seems that continued pumping is required to prevent a serious pollution incident; or at all events to give assurance that such an incident can be avoided".Some of us have been saying that for many months. The Minister went on to say:Whatever else might come out of the consideration of priorities, I am certain that it must include a commitment to maintain the pumping there for so long as it is needed in order to prevent the risk of serious pollution; and there may be other cases elsewhere where pumping should likewise be maintained".I readily concur with what has been said. It is not just a North-East problem; it is something that is happening and which will happen in every coal field throughout the country. Those words were very important and most heartening. However, there is an immediate and vital question to be asked: who will pay for it and how long will it last? That has not been spelt out. That is why some of us are most concerned. It is the nub of the problem. If it is not answered, I am sorry to say that it will seem that the Government are simply skirting around the problem.
One purpose of my amendment is to try to clear up the doubt that surrounds the matter. The Bill is the obvious measure to deal with the uncertainty about which I have just spoken. I do not think that there will be any disagreement in that respect. I hope that the Government will accept my amendment.
§ Lord Crickhowell
I intend to be very brief. I have a little problem in that I have a long-standing commitment this evening. However, I hope that I shall not have to leave the Chamber before my noble friend the Minister replies. But, if I do, I hope that both he and Members of the Committee will forgive me. What I have to say can be said quite briefly. My noble friend the Minister has been most helpful, both this afternoon and during the earlier stages; indeed, to quote words used just a short time ago he has been "clear, consistent" and, I should add, helpful.
The statement that my noble friend the Minister made last Tuesday has been frequently referred to; indeed, it has just been quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington. I share the view that the statement made about the pumping, and in particular about the Durham 1068 coal field, was of great importance. In the light of that statement—which has really taken matters forward—it was somewhat cavalier a the noble Lord to say that the Government have not approached the matter with a sufficient sense of priority.
I believe that the Government have now shown that it is a very important matter and that they propose to deal with it. They have made it clear that it will be the responsibility of the Coal Authority to do so. My noble friend the Minister added that he would expect the Coal Authority to seek to meet its commitments in the most cost-effective way. No one can doubt that that is right. My noble friend has quite clearly given a commitment on behalf of the Government in that respect.
It is always rather nice to be the chairman of a public body when noble Lords suggest that all sorts of new powers should be given to it and that other authorities should be required to do things that one would like. I have to say that this is another occasion when I am able, at least to some extent, to support my noble friend. We do not want an obligation on the authority to require that the licensee shall take such steps as the NRA thinks necessary. I say that because once again we return to the position of confusing who is responsible. I want to be sure that the NRA is in a position to set appropriate conditions. That is the point I made earlier. I have explained to my noble friend why I do not believe that the NRA, or the river pollution boards in Scotland, will be in that position. I am not yet satisfied that they are involved in the right stage of the process. My noble friend has undertaken to look at that again. Subject to that proviso, I believe that the job should lie with the regulatory authority.
It is interesting that in the Environmental Protection Act there is a clause which states that for prescribed processes the enforcing authority—which is HMIP—shall not grant an authorisation if the National Rivers Authority certifies to the enforcing authority its opinion that the release will result in or contribute to a failure to achieve any water quality objective in force under Part III of the Water Act. The Act goes on to provide that any authorisation which is granted shall, as respects such releases, include such conditions as appear to the National Rivers Authority to be appropriate.
However, there is a fundamental difference there. HMIP, the environmental regulator, is the enforcing authority. Therefore, it is merely one environmental regulator in a position to put certain conditions into the authority for the operation of the particular process.
It is perhaps relevant that discharge from a mine is not a process controlled by the Environmental Protection Act. Perhaps at some future date we should consider whether it should be. I say at some future date because, again, while I understand and sympathise with what the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, said, these issues are complex. In the NRA report which the noble Lord quoted we say that dealing with the combined problem of contamination from abandoned mines and from contaminated land is a major one and it should be viewed on a combined basis. The Government are undertaking a major review at present. I have said previously that I do not want a major change in environmental legislation covering a huge, complex and 1069 important issue written rather hurriedly into the Coal Bill. We have to return to the issue at the appropriate time.
I would have some sympathy for the argument proposed in Amendment No. 93 that we should do away, at least for the future and in relation to the lessees and licensees to be licensed under this Bill, with the exemptions contained in Sections 89 and 161 of the Water Act in relation to permitted discharges. Where I part company with Amendment No. 93 as drafted is that it seems to be retrospective. It seems to me to place on the Coal Authority liabilities which did not exist previously. That does not seem to be a right principle.
The ability remains—and I argued earlier this afternoon that it should not be transferred—to establish that pollution was caused by the Coal Authority. So while I have great sympathy with the view that we need to change the law and that we need to move on I am not sure that Amendment No. 93 provides the appropriate way forward.
However, we believe, and the NRA report states, that we should be in a position to ensure that when an abandonment plan comes forward the mine operator should prepare an abandonment programme which includes the perceived impact on water quality; that the NRA should be informed at least three months beforehand; and appropriate steps are put in place to ensure that an effective programme is carried forward. We should also like to see the planning system amended to ensure that when a mine is opened or reopened full provision is made in advance for its aftercare with respect to ground water rebound and water pollution.
That leads me to say what I have said again and again this afternoon. I do not want the wrong powers to be given to the wrong bodies. I want effective powers for the regulator. I do not believe that we have them at the moment because I am not sure that the NRA is given the information and put in a position to enable it to take the appropriate steps under the existing planning law. If that is put right, then I am, prepared to wait for a wider and more embracing measure after the current review is completed.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
I understand that hitherto the Government have said that the underlying problem is complex and that when the pumps are switched off after the closure of a pit and the water level resumes its natural level, many causes may join thereafter to produce pollution. The Government say that it is difficult to pin the responsibility on any one individual organisation.
I would be the first to accept that it is difficult and complex. To the best of my recollection we have been told since February 1992 that the Government are investigating the issue and the legislative framework that is necessary. Can the Minister give an indication when the investigation will be completed and when we may expect the report?
I have followed what the Minister has said. I should like him to confirm that he is saying that henceforth if the polluted water emanates even from a colliery for which the Coal Board has had no responsibility at any 1070 time, the Coal Authority will be responsible for the pollution. What is the authority for that statement, if that is the Government's position? Secondly, if that is the position, what is the sanction if the Coal Authority fails to abate the pollution? We are entitled to ask that question given the wording of the Water Resources Act 1991.
I am particularly mindful that there was a case before the Cardiff Crown Court on 2nd December last year against British Coal. The case failed. The prosecution arose out of the pollution of the River Rhymney after the pumps had been switched off after the closure of the Britannia and Pengam pits. The prosecution failed because it was unable to show that the polluting material had emanated from the Britannia and Pengam pits. In fact, it had emanated from pits higher up in the Mynydd Islwyn seam.
I should be grateful if the Minister would say when he anticipates sanctions will be available and amendments will be made to the Water Resources Act to enable prosecutions to be brought against the Coal Authority if it fails to abate the nuisance.
§ Lord Strathclyde
I shall deal with this point right away, because it is one that we have dealt with again and again. First, the Coal Authority will take over all the assets of British Coal. British Coal owns all the coal in the country and the Coal Authority becomes responsible for its liabilities. That is set out in subsection (3).
In relation to the review announced by my right honourable friend Mr. Atkins, he indicated that he expected the overall review of the issues relating to contaminated land and liabilities, including the question raised in Amendment No. 93, to be concluded later this year. That deals with that issue.
Amendment No. 83A, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and Amendment No. 93 are similar to Amendments Nos. 46, 47, 49 and 55 which we debated last Thursday. The difference is that Amendment No. 83A requires that all licences should contain conditions enforcing the requirements of the NRA, whereas the earlier amendments dealt predominantly with consultation.
As regards the operational phase of a mine, there is absolutely no need for licence conditions to enable the NRA to enforce its requirements. It has its own proper powers to enforce its requirements. All that is necessary so far as Coal Authority licensing is concerned is that the licensing should not in any way obstruct the NRA's role, and I am confident that that is the case. As I have mentioned, Schedule 8 to the lease contains a covenant by the tenant, at his own expense, to execute all works and to provide and maintain all arrangements, whether affecting an owner, tenant or occupier, which are directed or required by any statute in force or by any competent authority.
I have also explained how we intend to deal with the abandonment of mines. The leases will contain appropriate conditions to secure that the operator will consult the appropriate regulatory body about the possible consequences for the water environment of abandoning the mine. Before agreeing to termination of the lease, the authority will expect the operator to 1071 institute any reasonable treatment measures and to make an appropriate payment for any continuing costs. Once the lease has come to an end, the authority will be responsible, as I have explained.
I think that this is the most effective way of securing that appropriate measures are taken to protect the environment in these circumstances. Therefore, I contend that Amendment No. 83A is unnecessary.
The second amendment, Amendment No. 93, deals with the question of statutory pollution offences in respect of discharges permitted rather than caused. It goes back to the statement that I made on the first day. Again it goes back to the consultation process by Robert Atkins. It deals with the question of who should be liable in the circumstances. Once we have the answers to that, we can set about changing the law, if that is required. That was the point that my noble friend Lord Crickhowell made; he is absolutely right on this question. I wish we could agree that the statement that I made on Tuesday—it may not be a perfect statement; it may not go as far as noble Lords wish me to go—is as far as we can reasonably be expected to go because of the uncertainties regarding the future regime dealing with these quite specific liabilities. That would save a lot of time.
The noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, asked two specific questions: who will pay; and how long will pumping go on? The answer to the first question is that the Coal Authority will pay for all of this, as I believe I have made clear in the past. As for how long the pumping of the mines will continue, it will continue for so long as it is needed to forestall serious pollution. The authority will be the owner of the abandoned mines. It is not a commitment that is limited in time. However, I emphasise that the period is only so long as is needed to prevent pollution.
I have explained the review process. I do not wish to go over old ground again. But I believe that the amendment is unnecessary because the interim measures will not prejudice any new legal responsibilities which may fall on the Coal Authority as a result of the review. I believe that going further with the noble Lord's amendment would prejudge that review, which it is not worth doing.
I hope that in the light of that explanation—I have given valuable reassurance where that is required—the noble Lord, Lord Morris, will withdraw the amendment.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Morris of Castle Morris
Because I was in close and intimate discussion behind the Woolsack on the crucial question of the Committee's dinner time, I regret that I was unable fully to follow the arguments put forward in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. I apologise to him. I shall certainly read them carefully tomorrow. I think that he gave us at least qualified support and, if so, I welcome it; if not, I am sorry.
§ Lord Morris of Castle Morris
I shall read the speech tomorrow and see what crumbs of comfort I can 1072 extract from it. It sounded quite nice to me when the noble Lord said it. However, he alerted us to the complexity of the problem.
The Minister replied to me on Amendment No. 83A and to my noble friend on Amendment No. 93. He said that there was no need for such amendments because the NRA has all the powers necessary to achieve the thrust of the amendment without bothering anyone else. He also gave us reassurances on the powers of the lease. That may be so. I shall be obliged to take advice on his reply. Yet I must point out that, whenever I take advice, based on antecedent form my advisers tend to say, "Yes, that's all very well but", and produce another six factors which the Minister's reply leaves totally out of consideration, which would produce an entirely new set of problems. If the advisers do as they usually do, I shall return at Report stage with further amendments in this area. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 83B not moved.]
§ Clause 55 [Health and safety regulations as to rescue service]:
Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 84:
Page 51, line 12, at end insert ("provided that approval shall only be given to a scheme which maintains the same or a greater level of service as that in existence immediately before the restructuring date.").
The noble Lord said: I shall be brief. We come back to the question of health and safety. While I support the broad thrust of Clause 55, we believe, as suggested in the amendment, that it should be strengthened and that at line 12 on page 51 should be inserted the words,
provided that approval shall only be given to a scheme which maintains the same or a greater level of service as that in existence immediately before the restructuring date".
That emphasises what we have felt repeatedly as we have dealt with the question of safety: that under public ownership a culture of safety was established—the point was made strongly by the noble Lord, Lord Haslam—and that we should do everything possible to continue that culture. That is why we make the point that any approved scheme will be up to the standard of previous schemes. I beg to move.
§ Lord Callaghan of Cardiff
I support the amendment, although I wish it had gone further. I wish that it had begun, "There shall be a national rescue service". This clause is totally conditional upon a number of things happening. It is time that the provision was firmed up; and the noble Lord's amendment will help to do that.
I had intended merely to say, "Hear, hear", to those who spoke to the amendment. However, my noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley, who would have spoken to the amendment, has had to leave. I wish therefore to take his place, however inadequate that may be, and to say a word about why I believe that the Government ought to go further on this matter and strengthen this very conditional clause, turning it into an affirmative provision.
There is no doubt that rescue at coal mines is a specialist function requiring workers who are specifically trained and equipped for that work. Two rescue 1073 stations have been closed down: one in Yorkshire and one at Dinas in South Wales. I believe that it is right that we should not have a dwindling of the necessary rescue stations. A policy should be announced and made clear on a vital matter—namely, the lives and safety of those who work in the pits. The training of the rescue workers is arduous, it demands full-time commitment and is dangerous. The regulations at the moment are quite strict—owners employing 10 or more workers underground are required to provide central rescue stations near to the mines and trained rescue workers.
There is no legal requirement for full-time brigadesmen, but on the other hand I believe that the Committee will be impressed when I say that British Coal found it useful—I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, himself was responsible—to set up a full-time service. That in itself was an indication that part-time brigadesmen and a part-time service are not adequate for the purpose. The Health and Safety Executive, which has been advised by the National Advisory Committee on Rescue Work, has accepted that there is a need to strengthen the present regulations. The European Community also has an interest in the matter. It is important that existing standards of provision should be maintained. Whatever scheme is adopted by the Government, I trust that that principle will be observed.
It is also important that small and remote mines should have access to a full-time service. I am sure I am right in saying that in South Wales today there are anything up to 100 small mines, some in inaccessible places. Only a full-time cadre, a skeleton service can have knowledge of the South Wales valleys and the other areas where many of the pits are inaccessible, even almost unknown to people who live within 10 or 20 miles. It is important that there should be full-time workers capable of knowing where those pits are and I am sure I am not exaggerating when I say there are 100 pits which employ 10 men or quite a small number. That is an important consideration.
I am not particularly in favour of privatisation, as is well known, but there is a case for saying that, if the Bill is to go through, then a disproportionate burden should not be placed upon the shoulders of the private coal mines which would drive them out of existence. Common sense leads me to say that in those circumstances the service should be the responsibility of the new Coal Authority which will be set up. Before any scheme is agreed, we should have an understanding from the Government that they are willing to ensure that there is a service which will be properly financed, without undue burdens being put on those who are ill able to pay for them, in operating the pits.
I wish to make clear that there is an argument that full-time brigadesmen should be replaced with part-time rescue workers. I believe that the reason British Coal set up a full-time service was because, by their nature, volunteers are not always available. They may be working overtime, on holiday or whatever it is, but it has not proved thoroughly satisfactory to have them and the rewards for the part-time brigadesmen are small. I ask for an assurance from the Government on this: if they 1074 are not willing to put into the Bill—it should not be conditional, it should be absolute—that there shall be a national mines rescue service, will they be willing to give the assurance that they will not approve a scheme unless it is based on a national service, a core of rescue brigadesmen who are full-time professionals? Volunteers, although able and willing even after undertaking some training, have shown that they are not capable all the time of carrying out the skilled operations that are required.
Finally, I suggest to the Government that, if any scheme is adopted, it should not be left to the small mine owners, whoever they may be, but should be the responsibility of the Coal Authority or of the Government themselves. If I could be given some assurance from the Government on those matters, I know from my own correspondence that a great many anxieties would be relieved and my noble friend Lord Mason would be overjoyed.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Lord Haslam
My thoughts are similar to those of the noble Lords, Lord Ezra and Lord Callaghan. Currently British Coal has the sole responsibility for the provision of the Mines Rescue Service, which also covers the small licensed mines. The service provided by British Coal far exceeds that which is required under the fire and rescue regulations because experience has shown that to meet the demands of the industry this higher standard is needed. It is essential, therefore, that the proposed rescue service be based as a minimum on that which is currently provided by British Coal and every new owner should be committed to it as a condition of operation.
We have heard criticism of the performance of the private owners of the coal industry prior to nationalisation. That certainly did not extend to mine rescue activities. During that period, as a young mining engineer, I served in the mine rescue team at Boothstown, where we had adequate training facilities. The station served the Lancashire coalfield and was well supported by the private owners. Problems primarily arose when a number of rescue brigades from other coal fields had to converge on a pit to deal with a major incident or explosion, the equipment and procedures of the various teams not always being compatible. I firmly believe, therefore, that the future rescue service should continue on a national full-time basis, ensuring that the same breathing apparatus and ancillary equipment are generally available and that the rescue brigadesmen across all the coalfields are trained in the same procedures. I fully support Amendment No. 84.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
I hope that the Minister will be receptive to the anxieties which have been expressed by my noble friend Lord Callaghan and the noble Lord, Lord Haslam. There is only one additional point that I wish to make, relying on my own experience. The rescue of injured miners trapped in a small mine accident presents many grave difficulties because small mines do not have trained rescue workers on hand. They do not have the rescue equipment and, therefore, if the best facilities are to be available to the men who are 1075 working in the mines, it seems to me that the national rescue team, with its specially trained rescue brigadesmen, who are on call 24 hours a day, should be available.
§ Lord Morris of Castle Morris
I hope it will be conceded that we on these Benches yield to none in the importance that we assign to safety in the mines. Clause 55 gives powers to the Secretary of State to approve financial arrangements to ensure the provision of mines rescue. So far, so good.
We are concerned that such funding might be inadequate; not that it might not be there, but that it might not be enough. We have noticed that before in the provision made for CISWO. The Government did not refuse to provide assistance for CISWO, but they pitched their assistance well short of the obvious requirement and said: "Make up the difference by yourselves in some other way. Exercise your wits, get economies of scale or something of that kind; cut back on the operation". In the case of CISWO that might just be possible; in the case of mines rescue it would be deadly. For example, as the number of pits falls, revenue will be reduced but we shall still need the same capability to respond to a major incident. Major incidents cost the same, so the Government must guarantee an adequate level of funding both by making it a condition of the licence and by making the maintenance of a rescue service the ultimate responsibility of the authority.
We can draw a parallel between that and the fire and other emergency services. The Mines Rescue Service also forms part of that reticulation. For example, both at Flixborough and Kegworth, where we had major disasters, the Mines Rescue Service played a key role. The emergency services cannot be seen as independent and separate; they all operate as one great rescue service.
We are also concerned that the Government might be seduced by some cut-price scheme based on part-time rescue workers rather than the specialist, full-time rescue corps who currently man British Coal rescue stations. A part-time service will not do—if for no other reason than that it would not be able to guarantee adequate response times in case of emergency. If you are lying below ground with a broken neck, a broken back or even a broken leg, response time is what matters to you in terms of your life expectancy.
It is also questionable whether private companies would be quite as prepared as British Coal has been to release their employees for the necessary training if a part-time scheme was ever to be considered. For those reasons we strongly support this amendment and hope that the Government will concede it.
§ Viscount Goschen
I should like to begin by saying that British Coal can be rightly proud of the high standards which have been established by the Mines Rescue Service, and which have been praised by all Members of your Lordships' Committee who spoke on the subject this evening. Indeed, the service is second to none.
I should also like to stress right at the start of my remarks that the Government's fundamental objective, 1076 in the light of the advice from the Health and Safety Commission, is the maintenance of a national mines rescue service.
The commission's clear advice to the Government is that arrangements for rescue are a statutory responsibility of the owner, and that it is essential that any new arrangements should continue to reflect that after privatisation. As the commission rightly says, if they were seen as imposed, as the amendment suggests, or controlled from elsewhere, they would undermine the owner's responsibility, and they would be unlikely to work effectively.
The Health and Safety Executive has conducted a detailed review of rescue, working closely with the industry through the National Advisory Committee on Rescue Work and Rescue Apparatus, which comprises the owners, the Health and Safety Executive and the unions, with a view to bringing forward proposals for new regulations which reflect modern circumstances and take account of the current structure and proposed privatisation of the industry. That review led to the conclusions set out in the commission's letter of 26th January to the Minister of State for Employment. That letter has been made available in the Library.
At the centre of the commission's proposals will be a requirement that every mine must have effective rescue arrangements suitable for that mine so that, first, two rescue teams can be at the mine within around one hour of an incident; and, secondly, for a major incident, where rescue work needs to continue around the clock—such as was described by the noble Lord, Lord Morris—enough rescue workers to continue work 24 hours a day are available.
The commission's objective in proposing these requirements is to maintain or improve on the standards currently met by British Coal under existing regulations. On that basis, the HSE is currently preparing the draft regulations setting out the necessary requirements in full consultation with the national advisory committee. These will also, of course, be the subject of full formal consultation.
The commission also advises that it will be essential for the coal mine owners to co-operate with each other to achieve these requirements. This co-operation will need to encompass arrangements for the ownership of the existing assets of the rescue service, the arrangements for training and availability of men, and the need for common standards.
Clause 55 of the Bill therefore extends the regulation-making powers under the Health and Safety at Work Act to enable the Secretary of State for Employment to make regulations obliging those carrying out coal-mining operations to participate in a mines rescue scheme. Such schemes will have to be approved by the Secretary of State for Employment who will consult the Health and Safety Commission and other interested parties before reaching his decision. The commission will need to be satisfied that the proposals meet the requirements of the proposed regulations and guarantee standards.
The commission has said that its objective in preparing for the privatisation is to ensure that standards of health and safety are maintained or improved. I can 1077 reassure the Committee that it is an objective which both the commission and the Government take very seriously indeed. In preparing the new regulations, the commission is charged by the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure that the proposals be designed to maintain or improve standards. That will be a very powerful safeguard.
The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, asked about the question of training standards. Requirements will be covered in the package of revised regulations and guidance which is currently being prepared by the Health and Safety Executive. Those will indeed embody the current best practice.
The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, also raised the issue of full-time brigadesmen as opposed to part-time. That will be a matter for the new owners to decide—but in the light of the new regulations. As the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, himself stated, the existing regulations can be complied with by the provision of either full-time or part-time men. Indeed, British Coal uses both. However, I agree that there is no doubt that full-time men will have to remain as the core of the rescue service.
The noble Lord also asked about the question of small mines and the problems that they would face. We fully agree that the rescue service must be available for small mines. That is one of the main reasons for requiring that the rescue scheme should be approved by the Secretary of State. He will ensure that the service is available to small mines and on reasonable terms. The noble Lord—
§ Lord Callaghan of Cardiff
Will the noble Viscount confirm that "reasonable terms" include, for example, support from the Coal Authority? Or are the Government thinking along the lines of making the mine owners cover all the costs of the service?
§ Viscount Goschen
I have mentioned that the Secretary of State will have power to approve the terms for participation in a rescue scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, was concerned that the provisions would be too onerous on the smaller firms. I agree that it is essential that the owners meet the costs of providing a service if it is to be properly and efficiently run; but that that cost will also reflect the need to use the service, and on that basis we would not expect the costs placed on small and remote mines to be excessive. Their contribution would be based on their need of the service.
The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, raised the broader question, again, of funding of the rescue scheme. The basic answer is that if a rescue scheme does not contain adequate proposals for funding, then the scheme will not be approved. It is as simple as that. The safeguards are very strong.
The proposed regulations will lay down the minimum standards for rescue provision in the modern industry that all mines participating in a scheme approved by the Secretary of State will have to meet. In line with the commission's advice, it is these standards, laid down in Health and Safety Executive regulations which will meet the concerns underlying Amendment No. 84.
1078 It is proposed that the new requirements governing rescue should be in place by the beginning of next year to coincide with the vesting of the industry in British Coal's successors. However, recognising the importance of effective rescue provision, and to allow the new owners time to organise themselves effectively to achieve the co-operation which will be required, we have agreed that, following restructuring, British Coal will continue to provide its rescue service to the new owners under contractual arrangements for a period of up to one year from the coming into force of the new regulations.
I can assure the Committee that the provision in the Bill, the proposed revised regulations on rescue and the existing powers of the Health and Safety Commission, will ensure that the existing very high standards of rescue, including a national rescue capability, will be maintained or improved on privatisation. In the light of that explanation, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Ezra
I am sure that the Committee will be pleased to have heard from the noble Viscount that the Government attach the same importance to the rescue service as have all those who spoke from all sides of the Committee. We are all pleased to hear that arrangements have been made for British Coal to continue to provide a service at least for one year. However, I cannot quite understand why the noble Viscount repeatedly said that the Government's intention was that when the schemes are finally approved the continuing rescue service will be at least at the standards presently achieved or better. As that is the purpose of the amendment, I am not quite sure why the amendment has been rejected. I wonder whether the noble Viscount could complete our pleasure in hearing what he has already said by saying that he also accepts the amendment. That is precisely what I thought that he was saying. Will he be prepared to accept it?
§ Viscount Goschen
No, we feel that it would be unnecessary. Through the very strict safeguards of the regulations, we set out how we perceived that the very important issue of mines rescue will operate. We have stated that we would seek the very best standards—which are already available under the British Coal scheme. But we have stressed that the operation of the rescue schemes must be linked to the responsibility of the operators themselves.
§ Lord Ezra
I hope that that last remark does not mean in any sense that such apparent flexibility represents any variation below the present standards and that the present standards will at least be maintained.
I am sorry that the noble Viscount did not accept our amendment. I believe that what he said was virtually exactly what the amendment proposed anyway. I feel that in those circumstances we should all like to study very carefully what he did say and perhaps—choosing his very words—come back at a later stage and put forward an amendment which confirms what he said to us. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 55 agreed to.1079
§ Clause 56 agreed to.
§ Viscount Goschen
I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving that Motion, I should like to suggest that the Committee stage of the Bill should begin again not before 8.30 p.m.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.