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Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth) : The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. Some Members, like me, have mining decline problems and serious subsidence in our constituencies, and are here to debate that important issue. I resent the hon. Gentleman's imputation.

Mr. Barnes : I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentlemen were discussing the present motion, were concerned about advancing it, and are attempting to influence the hon. Member for Watford, who may not be as aware of the problem as are hon. Members who have these problems in their constituencies.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud) : In the event that we reach the poll tax motion, how many Opposition Members are prepared to contribute to that debate by being present today?

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Mr. Douglas : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the remarks of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman), have you had any intimation that if we should reach the motion in my name about the poll tax, a Scottish Minister will be available to respond to the debate? If not we shall be in severe difficulties, as you well know. It appears that the Government are reluctant

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. We have gone far enough along that line. We should get back to the subject of coal mining subsidence.

Mr. Barnes : I shall be very keen to join my hon. Friend in his debate later today.

The last letter from which I shall quote states :

"We have sent numerous letters to the Chairman of British Coal, Robert Haslam, and he just does not want to know. Our complaints are of unsatisfactory work, outstanding repairs and the way in which British Coal conducts itself, their manner towards the people who are affected, we feel that they are fully irresponsible."

I have quoted those letters at length because they concern important issues affecting my constituents. I have not identified any of the writers as members of the community may want to check up on other people's business. There is common concern in the community. I have read out some of their feelings, but all told there are 108 cases and I do not intend to refer to them all. They demonstrate the recurring problems about the board, the sub- contractors, the agents and the inadequate cowboy work that is carried out in many areas. A number of lessons can be learned. There needs to be negotiation long before the subsidence problems emerge rather than trying to pick up the pieces later. Planning authorities should make plans available and the matters should be fully understood by the community. The Department of the Environment also has a role to play, as has the Department of Energy, in that local authorities need to be advised of their role.

For instance, council housing and other services should become their responsibility so that the money--which should be more readily available through central grants--will begin to be put in funds that are directed towards those services rather than being just estimates contained in general funds. As greater pressure is applied, sometimes those amounts begin to be squeezed and the full amount is not spent on solving the coal mining subsidence problems. There can be difficulties because more than one authority is involved. In Staveley the town council is taking action about future developments and is co-ordinating with the districts and the county council. In difficult funding circumstances, there can be problems for all those authorities unless they have considered fully the discussions and plans concerning their area. The town councillors in Staveley are now in direct negotiation with the board prior to coal extraction in that area.

Considerable sums need to be spent by authorities on preparations within the area. Action has been taken in the Chesterfield constituency to ensure that provision is made for strengthening primary and special school buildings in the Inkersall area of Staveley. If, however, in the end they do not become affected by coal mining subsidence, those structural improvements will benefit the community. There needs to be that kind of planning. Obviously the funding for such matters needs to be considered.

The National Audit Office could have a function and a role in these matters. I wrote to the National Audit Office

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to see whether there was any chance of it carrying out a survey of the books on coal mining subsidence. I received the type of reply that I expected. It said :

"As I am sure you are aware, the day to day control and management of this scheme rests with the British Coal Corporation and, since there are no specific grants from the Department of Energy to fund coal mining subsidence, the scheme's costs are met by the industry. Unfortunately I have no rights of access to the books and records of the BCC and I am not therefore able to examine the administration of the scheme".

I believe that it would be fruitful if directives or primary legislation were passed by the House to allow the National Audit Office to have such powers. Some of the problems raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield about the funding available from the now more profitable board could then be solved.

Under section 2 of the Competition Act 1980 there is a provision to order an independent investigation of a nationalised industry under the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to be undertaken by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. It might be worth considering whether there should be a similar order specifically directed to coal mining subsidence.

I have been able to deal with only some of the lessons which arise from the difficulties in the Staveley area. I hope that the Minister will propose some serious measures, first, for primary legislation in those areas on the lines of the proposals contained in the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, which will come before us later and which is a combination of two Bills that he produced to the House last year. Secondly, he has an opportunity to take action without the requirements of primary legislation in areas such as the availability of plans for planning departments. I am sure that there are many other matters that do not require primary legislation, and measures could be pushed forward quickly, however important it is that we get that primary legislation.

12.5 pm

Dr. Mike Woodcock (Ellesmere Port and Neston) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on raising this important matter. It is not the first time that he has raised it in the House and it is regrettable that he has to continue to raise it. The Government should have acted before now on what they have been told on many occasions by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Similarly, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) has raised the matter in the House on a number of occasions. He has campaigned long and hard for his constituents.

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood) : Without success.

Dr. Woodcock : Yes, without success, but perhaps we will have success this morning.

I understand that the hon. Member for Ashfield has recently announced his intention not to seek re-election. I had the privilege of serving on the magisterial bench with the hon. Gentleman for many years. I remember that he was greatly missed when he left the bench, and he will be greatly missed in this place, too, for his down-to-earth and forthright contributions. We all hope that before he departs this place he will see at long last some progress on the subsidence issue on which he has campaigned for so long.

Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), who seeks to catch your eye in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, has campaigned tirelessly for six

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years to bring about a different approach not only from the Government, but from British Coal. His constituents, along with those of other hon. Members, have suffered from defective legislation and from unfair practices on the part of British Coal.

I know those three constituencies quite well. I was born and lived for many years in Mansfield and I now have a home in the Sherwood constituency. Many of my family and friends live in Mansfield, Ashfield and Sherwood. I have extensive interests in all three constituencies and many of my family and friends have worked in the coal industry as coal miners. I can say, therefore, that I am not entirely without experience of the effects of mining subsidence and the disruption, inconvenience and hardship that it can cause. Coal reserves can be both a blessing and a curse in any community. On the one hand, they bring employment and prosperity, but, on the other, the effect of subsidence, as the law stands, can be devastating. I believe that we all recognise that a balance must be struck--one which is fair between British Coal's need to mine coal in the nation's interest and the legitimate interests of home owners, tenants and the business community. It is important that it is a fair balance. It should, in particular, protect the interests of the individual against the abuses of power and the financial strength and monopoly position of British Coal. I have to say from my experience that, for a number of reasons, that fair balance has not been achieved.

As the hon. Member for Mansfield has reminded us, there are vast amounts of subsidence damage which are neither repaired nor compensated for by British Coal for a variety of reasons--British Coal has failed to notify property owners that mining has taken place, tenants have failed to report damage, ignorance as to how subsidence manifests itself, a fear of forms, changes of policy by British Coal without notice, and the infamous so-called six- year rule, which is no more than an excuse for British Coal to avoid its moral responsibilities. All of those items have contributed to the problem. British Coal is denying liability for millions of pounds' worth of damage. It is not that there is disagreement about whether the cause of the damage is coal mining subsidence, but that British Coal is denying liability for it and that legislation allows it to do so. It cannot be right for British Coal to damage property and then to walk away, leaving other people to pick up its bill.

The balance between British Coal and the claimant is unfair because British Coal does not always deal fairly. For example, although the Coal Industry Act 1975 is more favourable to the claimant, British Coal does not point that out to the unsuspecting claimant. It sends out damage notices and, in each case, it invites claimants to claim under the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957. The unsuspecting claimant fills in the form and so deprives himself of the valuable rights that he could have had under the 1975 Act.

There are many questions that lead one to suspect that British Coal does not act fairly. Why is British Coal so unwilling to let members of the public or hon. Members see its so-called "subsidence manual"? If it has nothing to hide, why does it want to keep it secret? Why does British Coal refuse independent adjudication on the extent of damage or independent adjudication on whether damage

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has been caused by subsidence? Why does it refuse independent adjudication on delay or on consequential losses? Why does it refuse adjudication on whether repairs or compensation is appropriate? It now claims that independent adjudication is widely available, but why can it give no figures as to where it is available, when it has been available and how many people have been granted or refused such independent adjudication? Why does British Coal refuse adjudication for loss of income or loss of profit arising from subsidence damage or from its failure to act in reasonable time? Why will it not supply a list of contractors who are prepared to work for British Coal rates?

When British Coal sells properties from its ex-estates, why does it limit liability to

"claims for new damage under the 1957 Act"?

Why does it seek to exclude claims made under the 1975 Act when selling its properties?

The balance between British Coal and claimants is also unfair because British Coal administration is often so appalling. Sometimes it takes months, even years, for British Coal to answer letters. Sometimes it does not answer such letters and sometimes it even loses them. Sometimes British Coal ignores letters that have been written to complain that it has ignored other letters already sent. I shall quote one case--a claim that was submitted on 2 January 1985. A damage notice was sent in on that date, but it met with no response from the corporation. A year and a half later the owners sent a reminder letter to British Coal on 9 July 1986. Again that letter was ignored. On 27 August 1986 the owners wrote again asking when they might receive a response. The letter was ignored. On 9 October 1986 the owners wrote again and said :

"Could we please have a reply to our letter of 27 August 1986 which asked for a reply to our letter of 2 January 1985?"

Again the letter was ignored. On 15 December 1986 the owners wrote again to British Coal and said :

"Can we please have a reply to our letter of 9 October 1986, which asked for a reply to our letter of 27 August 1986, which asked for a reply to our letter of 2 January 1985?"

This time British Coal responded--nine months later. On 21 August 1987, two and a half years after the claimant had first submitted his claim, British Coal replied and said that it regretted the delay in replying, which had been due to a change in proposed future workings. That was after two and a half years. A letter from the area estates department, however, said that the claim would be dealt with expeditiously. After that letter it took a further eight months to send the next communication.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood) : Does my hon. Friend agree that that correspondence has all the hallmarks of service to the nation by a nationalised industry?

Dr. Woodcock : Yes, and later in my speech I shall make a strong case for moving forward quickly to the denationalisation of the coal industry.

Today, four and a half years after the claim was first submitted on 2 January 1985, it has not been settled, even though the claimant sent a personal letter to the area estates manager which was ignored.

We could all quote such examples all day long, but I shall quote just one more. In this case subsidence damage was reported on 14 April 1986 by way of a damage notice. On 30 July 1986 the owner wrote inquiring whether any progress had been made. The letter was ignored. On 23

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June 1987 the owner wrote again. The letter was ignored. On 24 August 1988, two and a half years after the damage notice had been submitted, the owner sent a further reminder to British Coal. His letter was again ignored. In February 1989 British Coal eventually got around to acknowledging that claim when it wrote back to say that it was sorry for the delay and that it had been due to "microfilming currently taking place." It appears that it took two and a half years to microfilm a letter.

Mr. Gerald Howarth : It is a nationalised industry.

Dr. Woodcock : Yes ; and such is the incompetence with which claimants must deal regularly and for which they receive no compensation.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) : Have all the examples quoted taken place in one particular area of British Coal's operation?

Dr. Woodcock : The first example came from the constituency of the hon. Member for Mansfield and the second from the constituency of the hon. Member for Ashfield. I should be glad to make the details of those cases available to either of those hon. Gentlemen if they so wish.

Although British Coal is so slow and dilatory, the claimant is told that he must submit his claim within two months and that if he does not, technically, he cannot proceed under the 1957 Act. British Coal cannot get round to sending out damage notices within two months, but the claimant is required to complete it and send it back in less than two months.

The present balance between British Coal and the claimant is also unfair because of the time scale operated by British Coal even when it accepts a claim. That time scale is unrealistic. It takes months, sometimes years, for British Caol to get on with the claim--

Mr. Barron : In north Nottinghamshire?

Dr. Woodcock : Yes.

Mr. Barron : The hon. Gentleman should say so.

Dr. Woodcock : I can speak only from my experience, and it is about cases in the three constituencies which I have mentioned that I am speaking.

It often takes a long time for British Coal to deal with claims. British Coal is also the sole arbiter of whether repairs should be effected or whether compensation should be paid. The claimant has no such choice. Even if the claimant has good reason to want either repairs or compensation, British Coal decides what is best for him. British Coal will make that decision on the basis not of what is best for the claimant or what is best for both parties, but of what is best for British Coal, irrespective of the claimant's wishes. The present balance between British Coal and the claimant is also unfair because the individual householder is no match for the vast legal and financial resources of British Coal. If a claimant wants to challenge British Coal's decision, his only option is to risk what may be his life savings in a costly battle in the Lands Tribunal. The large legal costs of British Coal are paid by the taxpayer. I ask the Minister, is that justice? Even if the claimant is successful and British Coal agrees with his claim he is still out of pocket as he has to pay for the information as to whether mining has taken place near his home. If a man wants to know when mining took place under his home, he

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must pay a fee to British Coal to obtain that information. How can that be reasonable? The claimant has no right to compensation for consequential losses and no recompense for the time and trouble taken even though he may have spent days arguing his case, drawing up schedules, meeting British Coal and so on. All of that is unfair. One of the greatest injustices is that there is no system of independent adjudication. I have often heard it said that British Coal acts as judge and jury. Not only is it the judge and jury ; it is the offender, judge and jury. What kind of justice is it when the offender is the judge and jury in his own case? The only response for the claimant is to engage in expensive litigation.

We have regulatory organisations for many of our industries--for electricity, telecommunications, financial services, the Post Office, the police force and many other bodies and industries. We even have them for coal consumers because there is the Domestic Coal Consumers council. However, we have no independent complaints procedure for the victims of subsidence damage. Those are just some of the reasons why the present system is unfair to claimants.

What have the government been doing in the last few years about this massive injustice, this appalling situation? Regrettably, some people claim that the Government have just been supporting British Coal by refusing to take any action. I give the Minister credit for the fact that he has made some effort. He regularly forwards letters to the chairman of British Coal and tries to respond to questions from hon. Members.

In 1983 the Government appointed the Waddilove inquiry. A year later, in 1984, the inquiry reported to the Government. That was over five years ago. How can it take five years to take action if, as they say, the Government are taking this matter seriously? The Government published their response to Waddilove in 1987. It took Waddilove just one year to take evidence all over the country, look at thousands of cases and hear hundreds of submissions. However, it took three years for the Government to respond to the report of their own inquiry. It is now six years since the Government set up the Waddilove inquiry and five years since the inquiry reported. How could anyone seriously form the impression that the Government are taking the matter seriously? A few days ago the Secretary of State for the Environment floated the idea of a tax on fossil fuels to encourage the use of cleaner fuels.

Mr. Haynes : He has dropped the idea.

Dr. Woodcock : He may have dropped it, but are home owners who have suffered damage to continue to subsidise British Coal operations to make coal cheaper only to see the Government increase the price of coal by taxation? That would be rather a strange way to proceed. Of course the Government will argue that British Coal has implemented some of the Waddilove recommendations. They are largely fooling themselves. For example, it is claimed that British Coal responds very quickly to reports of subsidence damage. That is often untrue, and I can cite instances of responses taking years. It is claimed that damage notices are sent by return, but that is untrue because it often takes months to send out a simple damage notice. It is said that claimants in active mining areas are visited within one month. That is often untrue and I can

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supply examples of cases where it has taken a year. It is claimed that fully-costed schedules are now provided, but that is largely untrue. It is also claimed that independent adjudication is widely available, but British Coal refuses to offer adjudication in the most important areas of dispute. It continually ignores requests for such adjudication, and many of its inspectors do not even know that such adjudication is supposed to exist. If the Minister is in doubt, I shall be happy to supply examples of all the instances that I have quoted--provided that the Minister will agree to look into them or to have them looked into independently and not merely send them to the chairman of British Coal, who simply sends them to his officials who caused the problems in the first place.

I am afraid that there is a growing view that claimants are battling not only against British Coal but against the Government, who refuse to take action to put matters right. I came to this place to support a Government who prize individual rights and freedoms and who are determined to bridle the power of bureaucracy and state monopoly. In many respects the Government have been highly successful, and I have been delighted to support them. However, in the matter of British Coal subsidence they are failing. People ask why the Government are so reluctant to act positively and quickly. Some people even say that the Government wish to present British Coal as less of a liability in the run-up to privatisation. Some say that they expect the householder to subsidise the privatisation of British Coal.

I disagree with Opposition Members on one aspect of the matter because I want to see British Coal privatised as quickly as possible. Nationalisation of the industry has been a disaster for the nation. British Coal has not served the interests of the consumer and continues to operate wastefully and inefficiently. It stifles the private mining industry with artificially high royalty demands, abuses its monopoly power and even today it continues back-door nationalisation, apparently with the Government's approval, by buying up sectors of the private coal trade. Far from managing the nation's coal assets in the interests of the British people, it has largely managed them against their interests. Privatisation cannot come a moment too soon, but it should not be at the expense of those who have suffered subsidence damage. Subsidence matters must be put on a fair footing before privatisation.

Hon. Members who are taking part in the debate are not the only people concerned about the matter. Many representative bodies, local authorities, health authorities, companies and individuals also look to the Government for action. A couple of weeks ago I took a delegation to see the Secretary of State and the Minister about this subject. The delegation consisted of representatives of the Country Landowners' Association, the National Farmers Union, the Building Societies Association, the Confederation of British Industry, the Association of British Insurers, the Law Society and the British Property Federation. Those are august and, I hope, influential bodies and they are worried about the present state of the law and the practices of British Coal. They have formed what they call a united industry working party. It describes the behaviour of British Coal as "scandalous". It says :

"Clearly, the Government are not taking the matter seriously."

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At the meeting those representatives made many of the points made by the hon. Members in the debate. After the meeting the Minister wrote to me and said he hoped that we recognised that the Government were determined to make progress on this important issue. I certainly hope that they are, but I came away from the meeting not convinced that the Government are taking the matter seriously.

It is five years since Waddilove reported and we have seen precious little action. I hope that I am mistaken and that when the Minister responds he will commit the Government to appropriate legislation. I hope that he will put pressure on British Coal to meet not only its legal but its moral obligations.

As far as I am aware, the statute of limitations does not prevent British Coal from meeting its moral obligations. It merely allows it to avoid them if it chooses to do so. British Coal chooses to avoid them. No responsible nationalised industry would wish to avoid liability for the damage that it knows that it has caused, and no Government who prize the rights of the individual above those of a nationalised monopoly should let it avoid its moral obligations. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us that he will introduce legislation at the earliest opportunity to do a number of things.

Mr. Harry Barnes : The hon. Gentleman and I have different ideological views about the ownership of the industry. However, if the industry is privatised, it will move from one monopoly to another, so that involves a difficulty that has to be dealt with in legislation so as to ensure that the duties imposed on British Coal are transferred. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the British Property Federation as one of the bodies concerned in the consortium. In the evidence that it gave to the Minister before the deputation saw him, it said :

"While the British Coal Corporation as a national institution may in certain circumstances be regarded as operating in the public interest, the same could not be said of a private company undertaking coal mining for the profit of its shareholders."

Therefore, the federation, which is deep into property itself, recognises that private bodies have to follow that principle.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman has already addressed the House.

Dr. Woodcock : My hon. Friend the Minister should introduce legislation to deal with the vast amount of damage for which British Coal chooses to avoid liability. We should set up a system of local arbitration to adjudicate on claims, without cost to the claimant, where the claimant wishes. We should require British Coal to restore damaged property to a pre -damage condition. We should allow claimants to employ a contractor of their choice, not of British Coal's choice. We should require British Coal to compensate for consequential losses and the cost to individuals of pursuing the claim, and to answer without charge questions about how mining has, or will, affect property. Where there is a dispute on onus of proof, it should lie with British Coal and British Coal should notify property owners or occupiers of future mining plans and of mining that has taken place in previous last year. Above all, we should set up an independent ombudsman system to which claimants could refer cases of delay and administrative failure and which would have the power to require British Coal to pay the costs of losses that arise

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from unreasonable delay and administrative failure. The seriousness with which the Government treat this issue will be measured not merely by words but by deeds.

I have made a contribution to the debate but not because I have a major constituency interest in coal mining--it finished many years ago in my constituency. However, I have lived most of my life in coal mining areas. I am happy to place on record the fact that I have business interests that include property in mining subsidence areas. My home has been affected by coal mining subsidence, as have those of many of my friends. I speak because I have lived in mining areas all my life and because I know the hardships that can be caused by subsidence damage. People like me and businesses can usually represent themselves, but thousands of home owners in coal mining areas who are affected by subsidence find it difficult to do that against the might of British Coal.

Not only hon. Members here today but thousands of householders and many public and private bodies will be anxious to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say. It is five years since Waddilove reported, and it is high time that the Government took firm action. 12.32 pm

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) : I do not disagree with much that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock) said about British Coal and its attitude to compensation and damage, but the idea that privatisation of the coal industry would be a green light for the improvement of Britain's environment is far from the truth. Mining areas still bear the scars of the private coal industry. Privatisation of the coal industry is not the answer to the problems of mining and the environment, which were also mentioned by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi). Labour Members do not need reminding about the effect of mining on the environment because we have lived with such problems all our lives. We could be forgiven for thinking that British Coal has a bad track record, but it would be wrong to say that that is the case throughout the areas in which it mines. As a member of the Select Committee on Energy, I took part in a preliminary investigation into coal mining subsidence damage in north Nottinghamshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) should be congratulated on his tour de force in describing the problems in that area, which stem from bad engineering decisions at coal extraction workings. Bad decisions were taken at the beginning and subsequent bad decisions have been taken to try to tidy up the mess on the surface. An accumulation of shortcomings has left thousands of homes in a damaged condition. I accept, of course, that not all the damage is the making of British Coal. As my hon. Friends have said, some of those who were directly involved are now in prison and others are awaiting trial. A free market was set up in north Nottinghamshire and so-called entrepreneurs established themselves in towns such as Mansfield. We were told that some of those people were further exploiting those living in the area with money paid by British Coal. Some employees of British Coal were involved in the operation. We are having to live with the legacy of that. Many hon. Members have major constituency problems as a result of the operations of the private sector in north Nottinghamshire.

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I represent an area in which there has been intensive coal mining for many years, but during my six years as a Member of Parliament I have had brought to my attention fewer than five problems. I can only assume that properties are suffering subsidence damage in my constituency but that British Coal is responding satisfactorily. It should not be thought that what is happening in north Nottinghamshire is happening everywhere else.

The Waddilove committee was set up in 1984 and its remit was specifically to examine subsidence and the damage caused by it. Everyone hoped that improved arrangements would stem from that report. A White Paper was published by the Government in 1987 and we were led to believe that legislation would be introduced and that some of the affected areas would be cleaned up. There are many areas which suffer apart from north Nottinghamshire. The White Paper was followed by the Department of Energy's consultation paper. I understand that there were to be no more responses to the paper after July 1988. It has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House that there have been no proposals from the Government. We are faced with the six-year rule and the issue of exactly what damage is or is not caused to property by deep mining. The Waddilove report recommended in paragraph 192 that

"there should be no limit on time for claims for subsidence damage compensation. The onus of proof of the cause of damage should switch to the claimant after three years from the date when the damage should have reasonably become apparent."

That is a contentious issue.

The 1957 legislation allowed only two months for applications to be made for compensation for any damage that was caused to property by coal mining. On any interpretation, British Coal has not followed that line for many years. In most areas compensation is arranged to ensure that people do not fall victim to those hard rules. The Government believe that they should stick with the six-year rule which applies to other forms of compensation under current legislation. That is the rule which British Coal is operating. The six-year rule was not developed by geological experts or experts in deep mining. The experts know that earth moves over a period of time and many people are suspicious about this six-year rule. It seems that because the six-year rule exists in legislation at the moment, it is to be applied in this case. The six-year rule may apply in most cases in future, but there must be flexibility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) could not be present today, but she has told me that she has problems with subsidence in her constituency. Her problems are considerably worse than mine. She has had correspondence with her city council about some houses in Riley avenue in Burslem. The council quoted a classic distinction ; apparently because of the length of time that mining has gone on beneath that road, British Coal denies that subsidence damage is attributable to deep mining. It claims that compensation is statute-barred because of the length of time that the mining has continued.

A geological fault runs beneath Riley avenue in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North. The presence of that fault has been known for many years, presumably even before mining commenced. Obviously mining coal from below such a

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fault is a problem. I have worked beneath geological faults in mines, and I know that faults are very unstable and unpredictable and it is not very nice to work underneath them. Where those faults exist, people are not convinced that long-term mining below a thin crust is satisfactory. I hope that we shall consider the need for flexibility and a re-interpretation with regard to specific cases where compensation claims arise.

I do not want to speak for long because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield would be happy to see local adjudication so that people do not feel that bureaucracy is preventing them from making claims. Ordinary people cannot afford six- figure fees to go to a land tribunal over a dispute.

I received a letter from a constituent of mine in January. Prior to this I had corresponded with him, with the local parish council and British Coal, at area and national level. I have been trying to get some compensation for damage in the village of Woodall near Harthill in the south of my constituency. The letter is from a Mr. H. Taylor who, although only an ordinary resident, has become something of an expert on coal mining subsidence law--or rather the lack of it--over the past three and a half years. Mr. Taylor lives in South Cottage, Woodall. His letter, written in January, gives a brief outline of what happened in his village :

"Six of us, householders in Dowcarr Lane Woodall, applied in the summer of 1986 to British Coal for compensation for subsidence damage to our houses from the Highmoor Drift mine"--

which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes)--

"the main gallery of which runs under our houses in Dowcarr Lane. We got nowhere. A young technician visited and took a very cursory look and BC"--

that is, British Coal--

said No' to our claims. I had used a Subsidence Consultant who was in no doubt about the merits of my claim ; he was on the basis of No payment, no fee' ".

When British Coal said no, the consultant cleared off, as he could see that there was no money to be made--although payment was made in Mansfield, just half an hour's drive from my constituency. When their claims were turned down, the residents of Dowcarr lane collectively asked Harthill and Woodall parish councils for help. They also had problems with drainage because the road had tilted--a clear sign that subsidence was most likely to have caused the damage. The tilt was also causing problems in nearby fields.

The borough engineers then went into litigation with British Coal to try to obtain compensation. There has been no outcome so far, although the case has been in progress for a considerable time. Mr. Taylor and many other residents are very upset. They have found that British Coal, while denying any responsibility for problems on the roads and in residents' homes, has been negotiating not only with residents collectively--through me or through the parish council--but with individual residents. It came to the attention of Mr. Taylor and his associates that British Coal has decided, without prejudice--a phrase that is often used--to pay compensation to one of the residents of the village. I hope that I am not misquoting British Coal.

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A letter written to the clerk of the council stated--referring to a house on a road in which all the other residents had applied for compensation, individually and collectively--

"this property has suffered recent movement but we are still of the opinion, after taking all factors into account that it is not due to the effects of mining subsidence for which we would have a current liability."

Presumably that is an interpretation of the six-year rule that British Coal now uses. The letter continues :

"Completely without prejudice we are however prepared to investigate the matter further and the claimant has been informed of the action proposed."

Mr. Taylor's letter includes a handwritten note, which reads "A 7th person claimed when we did and that claim was

allowed--because, I think, the claimant could get legal aid and therefore dodge the huge expense of the Land Tribunal (High Court) which would require us to use Solicitors and Barristers, at a cost in the region of ten times the size of our claims."

That sums up the householders' problems. British Coal now appears to be prepared, "without prejudice", to pay some compensation on one house in this small village, but is denying it to all the others.

Dr. Woodcock : I understand that no case settled by the land tribunal has not involved legal aid. No one can afford to risk such high costs without it.

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