Nazi War Criminals
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : I beg leave to present a petition signed by more than 6,000 people. It is appropriate that it should be presented on the day that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is likely to receive the report of Sir Thomas Hetherington's inquiry into suspected Nazi war criminals. In October 1986 my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was sent a list of 17 individuals suspected of war crimes and resident in the United Kingdom. Currently, the British Government have no jurisdiction to try in the United Kingdom individuals who committed a crime outside the United Kingdom before they became British citizens. Other countries, such as Canada and Australia, have recently altered their laws to allow the prosecution of war criminals.
Anyone who has read the history of the holocaust or who has visited Yad Vashem realise how heinous was the nature of Nazi war crimes. For Nazis, no activity was too vile, no degradation too cruel.
The petition is as follows :
"To the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled. The Humble Petition of the residents of the United Kingdom sheweth :
That up to 250 alleged Nazi war criminals are living in the United Kingdom today.
That the Governments of Australia, Canada and the United States have recently changed their law to bring such persons to justice. Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your honourable House will take appropriate measures to ensure that those accused persons in the United Kingdom are brought to justice swiftly. And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, &c."
To lie upon the Table.
That this House believes that the owners of houses, land, buildings, services and other constructions which have suffered any damage due to subsidence, resulting from the working and getting of coal or of coal and other minerals adjacent to or under their properties shall have the right to full repair and equitable compensation for any damage caused by such activities.
First, I want to place on record my thanks to hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber for the help they have given me in trying to sort out the problem of coal mining subsidence damage, particularly in the north Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire areas. I particularly want to mention my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), who have greatly supported the efforts being made to secure justice for homeowners, businesses and service industries in the constituencies that they and I represent.
I thank also the Under-Secretary of State for Energy for his action arising from a debate on the subject 12 months ago. During my speech, I hope to show that, although he, as the Minister responsible, attempted to be helpful, little has been achieved despite all his efforts, and much still needs to be done.
I draw the Minister's attention to a survey undertaken by district councils in the north Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire areas. I shall explain in detail who were responsible for that survey and then dwell on its findings. It was undertaken by the staff of Trent polytechnic independently of the councils of Amber Valley, Bassetlaw, Ashfield, Mansfield, Bolsover, Chesterfield, Gedling, Newark and Sherwood, although they paid for it. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) is here. He has a great interest in the matter. He represents parts of the Chesterfield and Amber Valley district council areas.
If the Minister doubts the value of the report, I should explain to him that it was compiled by a multidisciplinary team organised by Trent polytechnic. Its membership consisted of Professor P. L. Clark, who was the project leader, Mr. W. G. Carter, a senior surveyor, Mr. P. Ramsay-Dawber, a senior surveyor, Mr. M. J. Saunt, another senior surveyor, Dr. R. H. Oldham, a mining engineer, Dr. A. C. Waltham, a geologist, Dr. M. Roberts, a research fellow and Pamela Burke, a research assistant.
The aims of the survey were many. The first was to obtain information relating to subsidence damage in the district council areas concerned. That is not surprising when one knows about the damage levels in those areas. I have often spoken in the House about damage to homes in particular, businesses--small, medium and large--schools, some of which have been either partially or wholly closed, and hospitals. I have also referred to cuts in services, such as water, gas and electricity.
The survey aimed, secondly, at establishing what were the most common concerns about the way in which damage problems were being dealt with at local level by British Coal. I hope to give many examples later.
Column 1217The third aim was to gain evidence for the Department of energy that would help it to deal with subsidence damage. The Minister will remember that I raised the matter after his responses 18 and 12 months ago about the evidence that his Department was compiling. He said that he hoped to let the House know about a series of decisions on how to alleviate the problem. I managed to gain from him on a number of occasions an assurance that his Department would accept evidence from the district councils. I am grateful to him for that assurance.
A fourth aim of the survey was to offer local authority help to the Department. Local authorities are responsible for planning, building regulations and various services. It would be difficult for anything to be sorted out without their help. They hope that their evidence will influence any legislation that the Government may introduce. I emphasise that Opposition Members and all hon. Members who are trying to obtain justice for people who have suffered from the effects of subsidence, particularly in areas where coal mining takes place on a large scale, are not against British Coal. Our attitude is quite the reverse. The pressures that these communities experience are also being experienced by British Coal.
The chief executive of Mansfield district, Mr. Richard Goad, aptly described it in the report that is to be presented next Tuesday to the Minister. He says :
"The aim is not to smash British Coal around the head but to obtain equity for people suffering subsidence damage."
That is a very laudable aim. In no way could the council's attitude be construed as being against British Coal.
Everybody who is concerned about this problem recognises that the major factor is old damage, not new. New mining techniques have been introduced by British Coal in recent years. It is old damage that is causing the problem. The statistical evidence in the report provides an impartial information base for any future action that may be taken by the participating authorities.
The questionnaire that was used in the survey was specifically designed to provide information about a number of matters : first, the nature of any compensation that claimants may have received--for example, cash in kind ; secondly, any compensation that they expected to receive ; thirdly, the parties involved in the claims process--solicitors, estate agents, British Coal, subsidence agents, etc. ; fourthly, the degree of statisfaction expressed by claimants in respect of remedial works by the contractors supplied by British Coal ; fifthly, the number of subsidence claims outstanding, and many other factors.
Having decided to carry out the survey, local authorities were asked to distribute 160,000 leaflets, restricted to target areas that were known to have coal mining subsidence problems. Local businesses were also contacted by letter. The returned questionnaires were then sorted into two categories --affected and non-affected properties. Different distribution methods were used by each authority. It was thought that, if as wide a variety of methods as possible were used, it would help to reinforce the argument. I shall describe the different methods of distribution.
The questionnaires were distributed in Amber Valley with electoral registration forms and they were returned with the electoral registration forms by the occupiers. They were distributed only where there were known to be subsidence problems. The questionnaires were distributed
Column 1218by hand in Ashfield by council staff--with an addressed, unstamped envelope for return--to all areas in the district. In Bassetlaw, the questionnaire was distributed by means of the local authority's own newspaper and delivered to every house in the district. It was distributed in Bolsover by means of the local free newspaper and by using local newsagents, post offices and libraries in the area. The questionnaires were distributed in Chesterfield in pre-paid envelopes with the electoral registration forms. Distribution was limited to areas that were likely to have experienced coal mining subsidence. In Gedling, the questionnaires were delivered by hand with the electoral registration forms and there was a pre-paid envelope. It was delivered only in areas that were known to have experienced mine working subsidence within the last 15 years. The questionnaire was distributed by hand in Mansfield to every householder on the electoral register and it was collected, together with the filled-in electoral forms, by canvassers. In Newark and Sherwood, there was limited distribution of the questionnaire. It was delivered to people in areas where there were known to be underground mine workings. It was hand- delivered and part-collected by canvassers. The others were returned directly by householders. In order to assess the views of those who responded, particularly concerning the quality of the repairs carried out by British Coal, a random sample of properties affected by mining subsidence were inspected by consultants. The sample included equal numbers of satisfied and dissatisfied claimants in each area. The Minister knows that the background to the debate is the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act 1950, which allows the owners of small dwelling houses the right to be compensated for repairs. The Act also covers those who have no rights to compensation under title deed. Another provision relates to a time limit for notice of damage to be given. The Act also provides that British Coal-- then the National Coal Board--should be able to serve notice to the effect that repairs can be postponed until the likelihood of further damage has passed. It came to be known as a stop notice. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that the 1957 Act extended the statutory right of compensation to the owners of practically all land, buildings and works damaged by subsidence. The Act stated that British Coal was responsible for making damaged property reasonably fit for its normal use or making a payment equal to the loss in value of the property if the cost of remedial work was in excess of that sum. The Act also contained provision for a time limit from the date when damage was first noticed within which the claimant must have given written notice to British Coal. It also contained four provisions for temporary accommodation which had to be made available by British Coal if a dwelling was uninhabitable due to coal mining subsidence damage.
The Coal Industry Act 1975 extended and made clear British Coal's right to withdraw support in certain situations. The Act requires British Coal either to pay proper compensation or, with the claimant's consent, to make good the damage satisfactorily. Section 2 states that British Coal must give three months' notice of its intention to withdraw support in the few locations where it did not previously have the right to mine coal. Unlike the 1957 Act, the 1975 Act contains no provisions about the onus of proof of liability for any damage.
Column 1219The Minister is aware that in 1976, as a response to calls for an improvement to the compensation system, a code of practice was introduced which set out five types of claim for which compensation could be given in addition to that already available under legislation : first, damage to chattels ; secondly, home loss payments ; thirdly, depreciation of crops ; fourthly, farm loss payments ; fifthly, additional payments to tenant farmers when compensation has been paid to landowners.
The final point is very important, as in my constituency it relates not to tenant farmers but to tenants and owners of properties. I have hundreds of cases, as do hon. Members on both sides of the House, in which small amounts of subsidence compensation were paid to previous owners or landlords, yet the damage has continued and, because of the cosmetic nature of the repair or the small amount of money which was paid, the present occupiers are now being denied any help, as they are being told that British Coal had covered its liability by previous payment or action.
The code also permitted any disputes between British Coal and claimants to be referred to independent arbitration. The coal board, as it was then, gave an undertaking to relieve hardship by dealing with claims sympathetically and allowing special discretionary payments in certain circumstances.
Those changes were made because of evidence gathered which pointed to a number of anomalies in methods which were causing problems. I shall list the problems in the evidence that was given at the time. Case (a) was dissatisfaction over communications with British Coal by claimants, including complaints about the attitude of its officers, difficulty in contacting officers and the length of time taken, to deal with inquiries. Case (b) was resurgence of damage, often with British Coal denying liability. Case (c) was rejected claims. The reasons often given were that the last workings were too old, compensation had already been paid to the last owner or that damage was due to general dilapidation--or, simply, no reason was given. Case (d) was lack of information from British Coal, such as information regarding possible damage occurrence, how to claim, or claimants' rights. Case (e) was dissatisfaction with services provided by professional advisers. Case (f) was dissatisfaction with repairs, mainly quality of work, the attitude of contractors, the length of time to complete work. Case (g) was dissatisfaction with temporary accommodation provided by British Coal, with complaints about the length of time complainants had to spend away from their own homes and the standard of temporary accommodation provided. Case (h) was complaints about the lack of compensation for financial losses suffered through damage to furniture and fittings, loss of earnings and expenditure on repairs which was not compensated for by British Coal. Case (i) was stress and strain caused by damage disturbance during repairs or simply difficulty in gaining full restitution. Case (j) was loss of property value. Case (k) was difficulty in selling damaged properties. Case (l) was lack of follow-up by British Coal. Case (m) was houses which had to be demolished by British Coal. Case (n) was dissatisfaction with compensation payouts and lack of knowledge of what the amounts were supposed to cover.
On that last point, I agree entirely with the Minister that some of the problems we are now experiencing relate to compensation payments made in previous years. I
Column 1220wholly agree that damage by coal mining subsidence requires not compensation but repair, and that we should proceed on that principle.
I regret to inform the Minister that, despite his efforts--I know that he has tried to sort them out--many complaints in the recent study mirror the complaints made in 1976 and those given later to the Waddilove inquiry. In my constituency of Mansfield, many of the same complaints are made.
During the last full debate on the issue, I raised a number of cases on which I could not get any sense out of British Coal. I promised the Minister that I intended to deal with those cases personally and that I would not discuss them during the debate. However, I raise the matter again because, when I raised them with the Minister, it appeared that those people were clearly being denied their rights. In certain instances, the position was so clear that I thought that it was simply a matter of the Minister contacting British Coal to review those cases for some action to be taken. I regret to inform the Minister that, despite his efforts in contacting British Coal, the reverse has happened.
I have a letter from British Coal dated 17 August 1988 concerning one of the cases which, after the debate on the matter, the Minister asked British Coal to review.
The letter is from the chairman of British Coal, who denied any movement whatsoever in respect of all the cases. It referred to Mr. G. Johnson of 22 Bosworth Street, Mansfield and stated :
"The last mineworkings in the vicinity of this particular property took place in 1974. Any damage arising from those workings would have become apparent soon afterwards, but it was not until July 1983 that the Corporation received a claim on behalf of Mr. Johnson, through his Agent, Alan Brentnall. An inspection of the property did not reveal any recent damage for which the Corporation has a liability. The Area confirm that subsidence damage exists in the property, but this is in their view considerably more than six years old and is therefore, out of time."
I find that absolutely amazing, as I have visited the home of my constituent many times. The property is so badly damaged that, until the repairs are done, I feel that my constituent should not stay there. The walls are leaning, the ceiling is displaced and there are cracks and small fissures in the footpaths and garden area. My constituent works all night as a care attendant for the social services. When I originally contacted British Coal, it was not about whether British Coal would sort out the matter, but whether it would either pay an amount to my constituent so that, because he worked permanent nights, he could have those repairs done for him, or that it would quickly get him temporary accommodation.
What is amazing about that incident is that the records that I have clearly confirm that the inquiry about Mr. Johnson's property was earlier than the date stated in the review. Also, it is a semi-detached house and the adjoining semi-detached house has been completely repaired by British Coal. It has carried out repairs almost exactly similar to those of which Mr. Johnson's property is in dire need. The agent and Mr. Johnson have supplied evidence that, some years ago, British Coal sent out its so-called independent arbiters, British Mining Consultants, or whoever it was at that time, who agreed on site that this was recent coal mining subsidence damage.
Having gone back to British Coal and reminded it of all those facts, the only letter I received back from it was to say that the evidence, advice and ruling on site or off site
Column 1221by British Mining Consultants had been reviewed, and the ruling was subsequently found to be wrong. Mr. Johnson was then denied liability, because, as British Coal pointed out, it was not bound to accept the evidence. It just had to put in place the mechanism to have that property inspected. That is a silly and completely unindependent attitude.
The second case concerns a Mr. and Mrs. Lilley of 37 Harropwhite road, Mansfield. British Coal states :
"The last mineworkings in the vicinity of Mrs. Lilley's property took place in 1978 and a claim was received seven years after the last mining took place and at least six years after any damage would have become apparent."
That again is an amazing reply, because the dates which I have confirm what the chairman of British Coal is saying about this property. It is unbelievable that British Coal could say there is no new damage to the property, because I have seen further deterioration of the property due to subsidence during the 12 to 18 months in which I have been visiting it. The fissures are larger in the garden area and the walls have undoubtedly moved. They have been moved not by a crowbar, but by ground movement. The evidence is clearly not correct.
Another property is 42 Southwell road east, about which British Coal states :
"The last mining to take place in the vicinity of this property arose from Rufford colliery in 1983-84. A claim received from the Agent"--
again Alan Brentnall--
"was considered by Nottinghamshire area".
British Coal went on to say that an amount of money was offered in recompense for subsidence damage to this property.
The property is a bungalow situated on the Southwell road, towards Rainworth in Mansfield. I raise this case because the amount offered would probably not buy a fairly elderly detached property in Mansfield. The property concerned is, in fact, a detached bungalow with considerable ground space. British Coal's offer for the property is completely ridiculous.
British Coal went on to say that it has agreed that the case should go to the Lands Tribunal. That disturbs me, because eventually any independent tribunal or civil court would rule in my constituent's favour. British Coal has accepted that the damage to the bungalow has been caused by coal mining subsidence. It is clearly in desperate need of either demolition or repair. If one goes in the bedroom of the property, one can see the outside world through the walls. There are cracks from one end of the wall to the other and from the ceiling to the floor, windows are displaced and the outside walls and the pavements are cracked. It is in a seriously damaged state. It is amazing that, as part of the remedy to the problem, the Government have suggested the use of the Lands Tribunal system. It will cost at least £120,000 for that case to go through the Lands Tribunal system, but at present that is the way in which it is heading. As British Coal's offer is ludicrous, that tribunal will undoubtedly rule in favour of the full repair of the property, restitution and compensation payments. I believe that the Lands Tribunal is being abused by British Coal. It is being used as a mechanism to get the people who own the property to take a lesser amount, and one which could not in any way replace the type of property that they have at present. It
Column 1222has been used to slow up the negotiating process, and British Coal is attempting to get a settlement prior to the tribunal.
The next property is at 24 Williamson street, Mansfield and is owned by Mr. and Mrs. Sharman. Again, British Coal is saying that the claim was received seven years after mining took place. Mr. Sharman worked all his working life in Sherwood colliery. He was a deputy responsible for the safety of those cutting coal underground. On the day of his retirement, he was to finish work at 4 o'clock, but he had to be more or less dragged from the coal face to the top of the colliery to be informed that he was now retired. He gave all his working life to the industry, and he knows when mining took place. He also knows that every house surrounding his has been accepted for damage repair and those repairs have been carried out.
Why is Mr. Sharman's case different? I put it to the Minister that his case is little different from many of those in my area. Mr. Sharman's property is a semi-detached house in a crescent. It was a council house that he bought from the council. British Coal says in its reply :
"I understand that Mr. and Mrs. Sharman as sitting tenants, purchased the property from Mansfield District Council in its damaged condition during 1983 and this was presumably taken into account in the purchase price agreed."
That was not taken into account. Mansfield district council sold that council house under the conditions which normally apply, with the price taking into account the number of years that the tenant has lived in that property, which in Mr. Sharmer's case was considerable. The price was based on the price of housing in that area, less the discount that he was allowed as a sitting tenant. No adjustment of the price was made because of damage to the property. It is cheeky of British Coal to talk about the price that people pay for their council houses. That has nothing to do with British Coal. All that British Coal has to consider is the cost of a similar house in a similar area. It is about time that it stopped using that argument. The next affected property is 45 High street, Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire. There is no joke in the fact that the owners of the property are Mr. and Mrs. Swindell. The Chamber is not the right place in which to have a conversation with the Minister about the swindles that have occurred in coal mining areas, but I am prepared to do so privately. Mr. and Mrs. Swindell are absolutely honest in their determination to try to get their property repaired. They live in a small stone cottage in Mansfield Woodhouse High street and it is seriously damaged. It is not a council house but a listed property, and it must be repaired. British Coal has said that the claim is out of time and that there are no new defects arising out of coal mining subsidence problems. That is wholly misleading. There is clear evidence that the movement and subsequent defects in the property are worsening all the time. Properties in the near vicinity, almost adjacent to the cottage, have moved and claims have been lodged and accepted, but the claims for this property have not been accepted. It is totally misleading to claim that mining has not occurred. About eight weeks ago I received plans of the current and intended coal mine workings in the Mansfield Woodhouse area. There were three separate plans, one showing the area that is being worked and has been worked for about 18 months for the Shirebrook pit. The other plans showed the workings that would be undertaken in October of this year and in the next 18 months after that. To my mind the coal that has been cut
Column 1223for the past 18 months--it is scheduled to finish in November--has been worked directly adjacent to the cottage. Unbeknown to the chairman of British Coal, who signed the letter to Mr. and Mrs. Swindell, a review had been carried out by the Nottinghamshire or central division of British Coal. The information it collected was incorrect. The plans I received were produced not by builders on the district council, but by the estates department for central area. It is clear that workings have been undertaken near to the cottage and that workings are planned to proceed close to it.
The cottage is listed, and I am not sure whether it could survive any further damage. After all, the new workings will be undertaken almost underneath it. If the worst happens, what then? Will the central division of British Coal say that the damages were old, and that therefore they should not be repaired? That is ludicrous. If the current damage is out of time, it will be considerably worsened by the effects of new mining. That does not mean that British Coal is liable for part repair only, it means that it has considerably worsened the existing damage. The Minister should write to the chairman of British Coal to see whether his officers in the various areas can investigate the properties I have mentioned.
I receive hundreds of complaints from constituents who cannot get any sense from British Coal. Things have improved, but people still ring for days and they are rarely able to get through. When they do, they are often told that the person they want is not there. Many have taken it upon themselves to visit the Nottingham headquarters of British Coal at Edwinstowe. Edwinstowe is a considerable distance from my constituency and many of the people about whom we are talking are elderly and many have given their lives to the coal industry. Those people have to go by car, get a lift from someone or make a series of bus journeys to get to Edwinstowe. When they get there, they are usually given exactly the same response as that given on the telephone : they are told that the person they want is unavailable, but that their details will be noted.
People are extremely anxious about their homes--they are not council houses, but their own homes. Because of their fears and the stress that that causes, those people are pesistent and they eventually get through to the necessary people at British Coal. Their success is a result of having written a series of letters or made God knows how many telephone calls. In some circumstances, people have pressured British Coal so much that it is more fed up with them than they are with British Coal. Once they make contact, people are given all kinds of promises. They are told that inspectors will be sent out, that British Coal will deal with a person's agent or whatever. The way in which British Coal handles this matter must be improved considerably.
Many of my constituents complain about the attitude of some officers employed by British Coal who visit their homes. Many say that they are "offhand" and show little compassion or sympathy with their problem. That problem must be resolved. I appreciate the difficulties and stress encountered by the staff of British Coal in the Nottinghamshire area. They are overworked and stretched, resources are limited and they face a growing number of complaints. What has happened is not the fault of the staff ; it is the scale of the damage that has caused the problems. I cannot condone the current situation nor can the Minister. We need action to try to help British Coal's staff and the people suffering damage to their homes.
Column 1224Why does British Coal say that recurrence of damage is not its liability? That defeats me. If damage recurs it is because the original damage was not properly repaired or because the damage was greater than initially judged. In common with other hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, I have hundreds of cases on file where further help has been refused, but when British Coal carried out the initial repairs, the contract price was so low that it enabled only cosmetic repairs to be done. The work involved little more than papering cracks and in-filling plaster or paint into cracked walls. It is only common sense to realise that such repairs will last only a short time. British Coal cannot morally argue that it has fulfilled its responsibilities with such repairs. If it believes that, it is conning itself as well as those people with damaged properties. A better system of communication on rejected claims must be established. At present, British Coal can use the compensation agents hired by property owners to their detriment. The large amounts of financial compensation, as opposed to repair work, that was paid by British Coal and the use and growth of agents have caused problems to the coal- mining areas. Some years ago, there was a compensation bonanza, when large amounts were paid out on claims. We are still living with the effects of that bonanza. My area has suffered massive damage, and many claims were made. From the evidence that I have collected, it appears that anyone who could use a slide rule put himself forward as a compensation agent. Considerable amounts of money were involved.
Earlier, I talked about swindles and frauds. Some arrests occurred of people who work for British Coal in the Nottinghamshire area. Some of them are still on charges awaiting trial, people have gone to gaol and staff have been sacked. We have to think about some of the problems in that area. Many agents, as they call themselves, were interviewed by police. In many cases the use of compensation agents is a deterrent to trying to solve the problem. One agent has so many cases on his file that it is unlikely that anybody will be able to get a settlement.
Little or no communication takes place between home owners and British Coal. British Coal is changing the system and no longer maintains contact with property owners, but a second-class stamp is all that it needs to keep in touch with an owner. Some of my constituents have had to wait months for letters, so it seems that not many second-class stamps are being used.
Agents are used as a mechanism to create a barrier between the home owner and British Coal. Because agents are exerting pressure in order to get settlements and chasing tens or hundreds of cases, they cannot contact people as often as they should. They are trying to cut their costs by not making contact with the home owners or people in British Coal. The people who suffer are the property owners ; sometimes it is months before they know about offers or rejections.
The Minister should ask himself why agents are being used at all, because that question is fundamental to the debate. I can tell him that it is basically because home owners in coal mining areas do not trust British Coal to do a fair deal. The evidence in the report shows that people who deal directly with British Coal get a better deal more swiftly. Coal mining is the major industry in some areas and many people have given their lives to it or to one of the industries that serves it. It is sad that an industry which has completely dominated an area is now thoroughly
Column 1225distrusted by the people living there. The National Coal Board was always regarded as a caring employer, but British Coal has lost that trust.
Bearing in mind the amount of money that is still in the fund, can the Minister say whether he would consider funding, on a trial basis, an experimental, independent legal centre to deal with subsidence claims? The money required to do that would be minimal--peanuts compared to the amount in the fund. A centre could be set up in Nottinghamshire or Derbyshire for both areas. Three or four people could operate the centre and concern themselves only with coal mining subsidence. That would be helpful and the centre would be financially viable. It would enable claimants to get expert advice and representation, especially in areas such as north Nottinghamshire. Subsidence money is already in the bank waiting to be used. Because of the age of many of the people involved, many of the cases would be legally aided and, with the correct legal advice, people would not be conned or shoved up alleyways. Some people are being told by agents that they should get £50,000, £60,000 or £70,000. They find out that Mrs. Smith down the street got £24,000 or Mr. White round the corner got £14,000, or they are told that they should not take the compensation but should have the house repaired. If we had a proper legal centre, people would be able to determine their exact rights. For a small additional amount, such a legal centre would be able to liaise with another body which I shall propose. That might take some of the pressure off British Coal, and that is a key factor. The small amount of money required is already there and it is not British Coal or Government money. It has been deducted from the sale of coal and set aside for subsidence grants. Such a scheme would save money because to take a case through the Lands Tribunal can cost six-figure sums. There are thousands of cases and, as I shall later show, many of them could go in that direction if that is the only option. If there was another option, it would be helpful all round.
Fourthly, of major concern to many of my constituents is the lack of information. I accept that British Coal has improved its distribution of information, but much more needs to be done. A central register for damage and property repairs for each district, kept up to date weekly or monthly by the local authority, needs to be available. That is important in areas where, because of coal mining, damage has occurred to properties.
The Conservative party is the party of business and urges people to be entrepreneurial and to stand on their own two feet. We are talking about my constituents and the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield and for Derbyshire, North-East and the hon. Member for Sherwood. Anybody who wants to buy a house goes to an estate agent and asks for a search to be carried out. He receives a piece of paper containing about three sentences and it costs £14.50. It says on the bottom of the piece of paper that if more information is required it will cost another £32. Sometimes it takes weeks to get such information. Who will trust information supplied in that way? Prospective home buyers are investors and should be able to pop down to the local authority to have a look at a damage register. They could locate the street and check
Column 1226to see whether there has been any damage or compensation paid or whether repairs have been carried out. When people are investing tens of thousands of pounds in a house or business it is common sense that they should have access to such a register. The documents that I have here are registers from eight local authorities. They are a considerable size, but when the Minister gets his copy it will be smaller.
The registers contain the addresses of damaged properties and the names of the occupants. They will be presented in an indexed form in a booklet. Each of the areas has been surveyed and the results lodged with a local authority, so that anybody who wants to buy a house can see if the property has been damaged or if a claim has been lodged or paid. It is not hard to do, and it would help everybody concerned. The fifth factor is dissatisfaction with professional advisers, something that I have already mentioned. The Minister should seriously examine the independence of the so -called independent mining consultants being used by British Coal, about which I have great doubts. It was largely through the Minister that we got these independent consultants, because he pushed the case for them and got British Coal to respond by using them more than it had done. In my constituency and that of other hon. Members, the independence of these consultants has been questioned. In every case where they have ruled that subsidence damage clearly exists, even going so far as to talk about what kind of settlement or schedule should be reached, when British Coal has asked for reconsideration of the case, the agents have stood on their heads and changed their decisions. This has happened in hundreds of cases, and there must be something wrong about that. There must be doubt about the independence of such people.
Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) : My hon. Friend has hit an important point. My experience, over many years of representing my constituents in Ashfield who have had the problem of mining subsidence, has been similar. For many years we had a fair deal from the National Coal Board and then, suddenly, there was a change and, following the appointment of Ian MacGregor as chairman of the NCB, which became British Coal, it took on an independent body of mining consultants. These people were turning down claims willy-nilly, despite the fact that serious damage had been caused to property. I agree with my hon. Friend, and the Minister should be aware that we shall look seriously at these independent consultants to see what is going on, because of the unfairness of the decisions that affect the people whom we represent.
Mr. Meale : I agree with my hon. Friend. I have been told by people qualified in this sector that such changes of decision are not surprising. The work of these so-called independent consultants is on such a small scale that, if they started to stamp their feet and refuse to change their decisions, other consultants would be used and business would be lost. I should like the Minister to consider this point. If there are to be independent consultants, as there are in industrial relations--we are aware that the Government are arguing the case over rail strikes and miners' strikes and God knows what else--there should also be binding arbitration so that we can see the real value of the independent side of the consultation.
Column 1227There is dissatisfaction with repairs, which mainly concerns the quality of work and the attitude of contractors. Many hundreds of complaints about the quality of finished work and the appropriateness of the work carried out have been received. The Minister should have this investigated. The prices offered for many repair jobs are so low that many builders will not do them until the winter, when other contracts are slack. Furthermore, many builders use British Coal repair contracts as fill-in jobs, because the prices are so low, so many jobs take weeks to complete.
Many constituents complain to me that in their homes, all their furniture has been moved into one room and is covered in sheets and that they are having to live in that one room while the damage is being repaired. For example, somebody has come round and put a bit of plaster on the wall, but it is taking weeks for them to come back to paint it or put on wallpaper. This is all wrong. It is mainly a result of the prices paid. I have spoken to many builders, from large, medium and small building firms, and they say that, if they could get enough work, they would not bother with British Coal work because of the low prices and because workmen get hassled ; it is not a viable exercise for them.
There is dissatisfaction about temporary accommodation. Many complaints are received about the length of time spent in temporary rooms, while at the same time there are lengthy waiting lists for people to be given such accommodation while their homes are being repaired. Twelve months ago, the situation was disgraceful. Hundreds of people were waiting to have their homes repaired but could not have the work done because of the lack of temporary accommodation. There has been movement as a result of the Minister's actions following the debate 12 months ago, and I thank him for that. However, more needs to be done and I hope that the Minister will keep up the pressure to take the strain off the people waiting for repairs. I have received many complaints about compensation for financial loss. Again, since the last debate, British Coal is helpful whenever possible. One difficulty has been losses accrued through loss of working days while inspections and repairs are carried out. Since the Minister put pressure on British Coal, there has been a better relationship with it, and in a number of cases it has spent quite a lot of time and effort, in difficult circumstances, sorting things out. However, when repairs and inspections are carried out on property, people have to be there to inspect it. They cannot leave the key and say, Inspect it and I will accept your judgment." Inspectors miss damage sometimes. Furthermore, British Coal inspectors find it helpful to have present the person who owns the house because they can explain what is old and what is new and what needs to be done.
The Government encourage people to buy their own homes, and therefore to have a mortgage. Growing interest rates put an increasing burden on home owners, so they are anxious not to lose money by taking days off work. They want to keep up with the bills so that their houses will not be repossessed and they can keep the financial wheels turning. Some 120,000 people live in my district council area and they do not have well-paid jobs like people who live in Westminster, Pimlico, Hampstead and the like. Many of my people are unemployed, but those who are in employment are not on high wages, and cannot afford to lose money.
Column 1228There is no doubt that worries over repairs, particularly of homes, causes stress and strain. Many cases on my files involve elderly and infirm people and the unemployed, who suffer serious stress through lack of action or even acceptance of liability by British Coal of its responsibility for damage. It is sad that this is happening. I understand, of course, that Department of Health Ministers are directly concerned, and that the Under-Secretary of State is not. I know of two cases where, without any shadow of doubt, the stress and strain that has followed the denial of liability for repairs has led to serious illnesses.
The stress that I see in people's faces, especially those of the elderly, who come reguarly to my surgery to see whether they can get help, is proof to me that the stress and strain can cause illness, and sometimes serious illness. I hope that the Minister will take this factor into account in his determination of these matters and in his final recommendations. I hope also that he will try to ensure that British Coal acts more swiftly.
The 10th area of concern is loss of property value. Without any proper guarantee of acceptance of liability, property values have been affected. Property values in north Nottinghamshire, an area of coal mines, demonstrate the effect of subsidence on house prices. Mansfield is one of the cheapest housing areas in Britain. The problems that have come to light over recent years have been reflected in property values, and people in the areas that have been affected are having to sell their properties at lower values than those which prevail in other parts of the country. If anyone wants to sell his home or purchase a home, he will have searches carried out on the property. Sometimes the process takes many weeks to complete. This obviously delays movement within the property market. British Coal regards the head of claim as extremely important when it comes to determine whether the claim is in time under the six-year rule. A claim is made, and sometimes, after years of waiting for a determination, the owner moves on. When that happens the new owner will have to make a new claim. I ask the Minister to consider whether that is fair. I have met people who were told on buying a property that a claim had already been made and that they would be able to have various repairs carried out. That is not the position. British Coal is saying that, if the head of claim--the owner of the property--changes, all bets are off.
That is a nifty device under the six-year rule. British Coal has only to wait for owners to get so fed up with the delay before repairs are carried out that they decide to move on. When that happens, it is no longer liable. Under the six-year rule, the claim founders. I ask the Minister to intervene. If a property is damaged and a claim is made within time, surely the claim remains in time even if there is a change of ownership. The fact is that many claims have been denied because of a change in the head of claim. It is ludicrous to deny that the properties concerned need repairing. The 11th area of concern is dissatisfaction with compensation payments and lack of knowledge of what the payments are supposed to cover. This concern is linked undoubtedly with dissatisfaction with the standard of repairs that are carried out. Many people who are not builders do not understand the difference between cosmetic repairs and major repairs. If a builder comes to someone's home to repair damage and says that skimming is all that is required, the owner will be willing to accept
Column 1229that. He will be pleased that repairs are being done. There is a difference, as I have said, between cosmetic repair and cosmetic damage, and full repair and serious damage.
Many owners are unaware that by signing an agreement to have cosmetic repairs carried out, they are thereby losing any right to full repair. This has happened many times. British Coal has applied pressure and has stated that cosmetic repairs only are needed. It has said, "This or nothing. If you do not accept the scheduled cosmetic repairs that we are offering, you will get no further response from us. We shall delay matters. You will have to go to court, and that will take a considerable time." Presumably these decisions are reached behind closed doors between the so-called agents and members of British Coal's estates department staff.
In many instances, people accept cosmetic repairs because they are fed up with their houses being undecorated. It is pointless decorating a house when it is known that plastering, rewiring, reflooring and the fitting of new doors are required. People are told not to redecorate while their claim is being determined, but sometimes the process takes three, four or five years. How would the Minister like it if he could not carry out any redecorations in his house for three, four or five years? The reality is that many property owners have had enough. If it is a question of cosmetic rather than full repairs, they accept the cosmetic approach because they want to live in a normal home environment.
I refer again to the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire district council survey. I have stated already that 160,000 questionnaires were distributed to households by various methods. More than 50,000 completed questionnaires were returned. More than 33,000 respondents--64 per cent.--claimed that their residences had suffered damage as a result of coal mine workings. It can be argued that some of these claims are wrong, that some of them might be misleading, and that others might be deliberately misleading. That could be said of three, 33 or 330, but not of more than 33,000
A random selection of properties was carried out in each area covered by the survey and subsequently the properties were inspected by qualified members of the survey team. There were reports of damage throughout the areas covered by the survey where coal mining had taken place. Bearing in mind the many occasions on which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield and I have raised the matter with the Minister, he will not be surprised when I tell him that 70 per cent. of the allegedly damaged houses were found to be in the Mansfield and Ashfield district council areas.
Bolsover district council sent out 27,900 questionnaires and received 3,077 returns. That was a response of 11 per cent. There were 2,127 claims of subsidence damage. Of the 3,077 returns, 939 reported no subsidence damage. Chesterfield district council sent out 6,500 questionnaires. There were 1,957 returns. That was a response of 30.1 per cent. Of the 6,500 questionnaires, 1,927 reported subsidence damage. Only 28 per cent. reported no subsidence damage. Gedling district council sent out 6,034 questionnaires and received back 3,792. That was a response of 62.8 per cent. There were 2,970 claims of subsidence damage. There were 775 reports of no subsidence damage.
Column 1230In Bassetlaw, 16,000 questionnaires were delivered and only 751, or 5 per cent., were returned. They showed 180 cases of subsidence damage and 564 cases of no damage. In the Amber Valley area, 12,000 questionnaires were sent out. Of those 7,589, 63 per cent., were returned. They showed that there were 2,747 cases of damage and 4,842 cases of no damage. In the Newark and Sherwood area 13,000 questionnaires were distributed and 3,252--25 per cent.--were returned. The returns showed that 1,132 properties sustained damage, while 1, 963 were undamaged.
The high figure of over 70 per cent. arose in Ashfield, where 41, 952 questionnaires were distributed and 12,050 were returned. That was 30 per cent. of the total. Subsidence damage was reported in 9, 730 properties and no subsidence damage in 2,320. In Mansfield, 40, 787 questionnaires were distributed and 17,744--43.5 per cent.--were returned. Of those, 12,321 reported damage and 4,994 showed no damage.
Those figures show that there were claims that 33,134 properties had been damageed. Those claims have been ratified by the checks made by a qualified survey team. They also show that 16,425 properties were unaffected. In simple terms, those figures show that only 20.7 per cent. of questionnaires were returned. They also show that 66.8 per cent. of returns indicated subsidence damage. In real terms, the figure is much higher, as many people did not bother to fill in the forms, as the percentage of returns shows. In particular, very little public or private rented accommodation replied to the survey. It is also important to note that the business community, apart from small businesses, was not included in the survey. The Minister has agreed to hold a meeting next Tuesday with interested parties. A senior official of the Severn-Trent water authority will be present at that meeting and he will refer to the millions of pounds worth of damage in the public industry sector. There are difficulties in the gas and electricity industries. The county council also has difficulties with roads and sewers. The business community is very deeply concerned. I hope that the Minister will accept that we are today talking only about privately owned houses and that the problem is really far worse than that.
Other factors also emerged from the survey. It showed that the claims procedure differed throughout the research areas. It also showed that claims were protracted where an agent was appointed by the householder, as I stressed earlier. Claims made directly by the householder to British Coal generally proceeded satisfactorily, as I also stressed earlier.
The survey also showed that few householders received a schedule of work. A schedule was generally prepared when an agent had been appointed and was used as a basis for claims from British Coal. That is amazing. I have seen some of the schedules. I know that negotiations continue between agents and British Coal, as I have received hundreds of the damned schedules. It is amazing that people are not generally given a schedule of damage.
The impression gained from the survey was that many householders did not know when work would commence or by whom. Because the builder usually did not provide a programme of work, householders' homes were worked on without consideration to the occupants' usual needs. For example, in certain circumstances, all rooms were