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Mr. Barron : That is absolutely right. The irony is that if legal aid is granted a massive amount of public money may be payable. People may have interests to declare. Massive legal expenditure may be paid out of the public purse which, as Mr. Taylor pointed out would be far in excess of the compensation claimed for the damage done to the property. That is nonsense.
British Coal thought that it was helping, but in reality it has made matters worse, in that village. I do not for one moment want British Coal to stop paying compensation to the owner of that house, but many other people are caught in a pincer movement and will have to remortgage their homes if they are to have any chance of obtaining justice.
Mr. Meale : Has my hon. Friend considered another danger facing the coal industry? It does not take a genius to realise that the scale of the claims submitted means that as this country is a member of the European Community someone could take to the European court of Human Rights the right to have his home repaired. If that were to happen, implementation of the court's decision might actually rule out the financial viability of the coal industry.
My constituents in Woodhall are not helped by the absence of any form of independent adjudication in which they and British Coal could have faith. Such a body could decide whether and how much compensation should be granted. The Waddilove report states : "There is a place for local independent adjudication by persons who have appropriate skills and are drawn from an approved list. The Department of Energy should invite nominations for such a list of adjudicators to be available throughout the coalmining areas." It then described in detail how that should operate.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the consultation paper put out by the Government in April 1988 was that it did not propose that the legislation would
Column 1255deal with the referral to local adjudication. In those circumstances, how are Mr. Taylor and my constituents to receive any form of justice if they cannot receive some money to allow them to go to the land tribunal to fight their case? That is totally and utterly wrong. Conservative Members have said that in other areas of dispute there are consumer protection organisations and arbitration organisations, as well as Government Departments or
Government-sponsored agencies, to which consumers can go for some form of arbitration. Yet the Government say that they are not prepared to bring in local adjudication for this matter.
If the legislation as proposed in April 1988 is brought in before the next general election, I assume that the Minister will be in charge of it and the Opposition will strongly oppose it if it does not contain the Waddilove recommendations. It would be the answer to many people's problems if they could have confidence in a local adjudication system which would decide whether it was mining damage, instead of having to rely on the present arbitrary lottery. Under such a system Members could advise their constituents as to whether they would receive compensation.
Until such time as we can get help to the people who have to live with the environmental excesses of coal mining, we shall continue to argue strongly against what is currently being done. I hope that the Minister can tell us when legislation is to be introduced. He must know that people are not happy about the Government's proposals for legislation.
Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood) : Today's debate gives hon. Members another opportunity to bring to the attention of the House and the Government the serious and often distressing circumstances that our constituents must endure as a result of damage to their properties from subsidence. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) who, knowing at first hand the enormous problems faced by residents of coal mining areas, used his good fortune in winning the ballot for private Members' motions to choose this subject again for debate. The hon. Gentleman may recall that just over a year ago he introduced another important debate on the consequences of subsidence damage.
Some may question the relevance of this debate, but for hon. Members who represent mining areas it is the only way in which we can demonstrate to the Government and to British Coal that the law on subsidence damage must be changed. Under the present regulations British Coal is judge and jury. It decides whether compensation is due and how much it will be, leaving people with two choices--take it or forget it. Since last year's debate, progress on change has been nil, although a constructive meeting was held with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy.
Two important milestones, however, have been reached. First, the united district council authorities, covering north Nottinghamshire and north Derbyshire and working in conjunction with Trent polytechnic, have ascertained the depth of the problem facing people who live in their districts. The hon. Member for Mansfield gave a full account of these activities, and I shall not bore the House with repetition. Suffice it to say that I fully support the endeavours of the united local authorities.
Column 1256Secondly, the united industry working party has been formed, comprising the Association of British Insurers, the British Property Federation, the Building Societies Association, the CBI, the Country Landowners Association, the Law Society, the National Farmers Union and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Why have these powerful professional organisations come together? That is easily answered : they are incensed by the scandalous behaviour of British Coal in respect of its members' claims for mining subsidence damage. These bodies have pledged to lobby hard and long for national justice to be seen to be done to the affected property owners.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) has asked me to apologise to the hon. Member for Mansfield and the House for his absence today--he has eight long-standing engagements in his constituency. I assure the House that he wholly supports our cause on behalf of his constituents.
Since I was first elected to Parliament more than six years ago I have received more than 2,000 letters from, and a similar number of visits to my surgeries by, constituents complaining about British Coal's attitude to, lack of progress on and outright rejection of their subsidence claims. However, we must also bear in mind that British Coal has satisfactorily settled many claims.
One of the principal problems faced by my constituents is that British Coal has moved the goalposts in Nottinghamshire when it has been in its interests to do so. A prime example of that was the reduction, in 1985, of the time limit for claims to be submitted from 12 to six years. If a claim had been lodged but had not yet been processed, that was my constituent's bad luck. If claimants did not accept British Coal's meagre offer, offers were withdrawn. That change was brought about after serious financial irregularities were uncovered in British Coal's estates office in Nottinghamshire in 1983-84. As a result of a lack of proper supervision by British Coal of its subsidence inspectors, and in the absence of a proper audit, innocent people were made to suffer. At present, their only redress is the right to appeal to the Lands Tribunal. That system may have been satisfactory when first introduced many years ago, but in recent years the cost of bringing a case has, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Mansfield, varied between £15,000 and £100,000. That does not give claimants much incentive to rush to justice.
A change to a cheap and simple system of recourse for claimants is long overdue. During last year's debate on the subject, I welcomed the White Paper published in response to the Waddilove report in which the Government made clear their determination to alleviate the hardship and distress suffered by property owners affected by subsidence. Action to implement that ideal is also long overdue. No one can afford to be complacent--least of all British Coal, as many of its employees live in areas prone to subsidence. The Union of Democratic Mineworkers recognises that substantial claims in any one area could place a colliery in jeopardy. Nevertheless, it believes in the principle of fair and just settlements, not only for its own members but for everyone affected by subsidence.
I share the UDM's view that the cost of providing compensation should be met from a national fund and not be set against individual collieries. The cost of meeting compensation claims adds approximately £1 to every tonne of coal that the industry sells. Although that sum
Column 1257may be small, it can be crucial to a pit's viability when added to its total costs. I was delighted to read in British Coal's annual report that claims charged to collieries dropped substantially, from £245 million in 1983-84 to £50 million last year, particularly bearing in mind that some related to earlier years. British Coal currently has £270 million set aside for latent liabilities arising from subsidence.
How can justice for claimants be ensured? Improvements could be made by adopting five administrative measures. First, British Coal should publish each year in local newspapers a map of sufficient size and detail showing coal workings in that locality for the past 12 months, currently, and for the next 12 months. Secondly, the Department of Energy's guide to claimants' rights should be corrected and rewritten in a more user-friendly style and be made more freely available. British Coal leaflets should be consolidated and should incorporate all extra current statutory concessions. Thirdly, British Coal should provide claimants with a claim form under the Coal Industry Act 1975, a basic summary of the differences in entitlement from those provided in the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957, a copy of the Department of the Environment's revised and updated guide to claimants' rights, and a copy of other British Coal leaflets. Fourthly, British Coal should acknowledge that claims may be submitted within six years of damage occurring. Fifthly, the Department of Energy should establish an independent user group consultative committee review board to monitor the system's operation and to recommend improvements. As the Government's sponsoring Department for coal, the Department itself cannot function independently of that role.
I should also like to suggest to the Minister that there is a need for interim legislative reform. Interim measures could be included in any forthcoming Coal Bill. There could be local arbitration. All disputes in respect of private dwellings and up to £50,000 in respect of other property should, at the election of the claimant, be resolved by a local arbitration panel. As for the standard of repair, British Coal should be under a duty to restore damaged property, so far as is reasonably practicable, to the condition that is was in when the damage occurred. Compensation should be paid for any shortfall in valuation to the pre- damaged condition equivalent to the residential loss of market value.
As for own contractors, a claimant--unless, in all the circumstances, it was unreasonable to do so--should be entitled to employ a contractor of his own choice to make good the damage after preparation of a proper schedule of repair and competitive estimates. After inspection of completed work, or stages, British Coal should pay the cost of the work, including that of any technical or professional assistance, properly incurred by the claimant in respect of the work and for recording the condition of the property at the time of notification. In all disputes as to whether damage resulted from subsidence caused by coal mining the onus should be on British Coal to prove that it is not subsidence damage. These measures will not solve all the existing problems. They should be looked upon only as interim measures until full legislation can be implemented.
Column 1258The White paper, in response to Waddilove, said that simple arbitration would be available as an alternative. Unfortunately, 18 months after the White Paper was published that is clearly not happening, even though British Coal has accepted liability. All my submissions on behalf of constituents have been rejected. One constituent has made 20 separate claims for arbitration on differing aspects. All have gone unanswered. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that to date British Coal has not accepted any cases for simple arbitration.
To whom, therefore, do we look when seeking immediate help for our constituents, bearing in mind British Coal's intransigence? Under the existing legislation, it can only be to the Lands Tribunal. In the past, the huge cost precluded that course as an option for hard-pressed claimants. However, the White Paper stated that British Coal would not ask for costs if individuals made their own representations to the tribunal instead of employing a battery of expert witnesses and barristers. Having taken nine months to clarify the position, I am pleased to inform the House that two of my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Harold Goodwin of 112 Shortwood Avenue, Hucknall, have made a submission to the registrar of the Lands Tribunal for arbitration to determine their claim. On behalf of the many people who need help in my constituency, I have personally thanked Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin for being the front runners on this course. Time will tell whether we have done the right thing. However, I believe in the old adage "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." If the Goodwins' case is successful, the Lands Tribunal will require a substantial increase in staff to cope with the number of applications that it will receive, or it might just dawn on British Coal that it should behave in a civilised way, thus saving everybody time and energy.
During last year's debate I highlighted a number of outstanding cases in my constituency. It will come as no surprise to those of us who have to deal with British Coal estates department to know that they are still outstanding. Today I could relate many further cases in my constituency which could take the debate to 5 o'clock were I not sure that the cases already highlighted by Opposition Members and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock) had made it clear that there was still a long way to go. One of the most traumatic effects of coal mining subsidence is that which lengthy and time-consuming negotiations with British Coal have on human beings. Many people involved have had their lives, health and businesses severely affected by their experiences. There is constant disruption to their daily life and work as people strive for justice and for an equitable solution, and in doing so receive no recompense for the expense and time involved.
Speaking on behalf of my constituents, I do not request the Government to take action. Our patience has run out and we now demand a promise today from the Minister that legislation will be introduced and enacted.
Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) : First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on choosing this subject for debate because of the serious problem in mining constituencies such as his, mine and those of Conservative Members. I recognise the fight that has been put up in the House on behalf of our constituents
Column 1259in mining areas over mining subsidence. Secondly, I sincerely thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock) for his comments about me. As he said, we had a close association for a number of years on the magistrates' bench at Mansfield. The hon. Gentleman was a fair magistrate and is a fair Member of Parliament. This morning he severely criticised the Government for not having taken action on behalf of our constituents, many of whom have had a raw deal. It is time that the Government took some action about this problem.
I have seized every opportunity to fight in the House on behalf of those people, and it has been an uphill struggle, but I feel that we are over the top now and we are coming down the hill. Whenever I have had the opportunity I have tried to knock the Minister out with one fair blow, but it seems that we will win the battle on points. I am looking forward to the Minister's reply to the debate and I hope that he will respond to the points that we put to him.
The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville) is sitting in the Minister's place while the Minister nips out to have a bite, no doubt, and I do not deny him that. He cannot sit here all day without a drink or a bite, but I am a little disappointed that the Minister is not here to listen to my speech as I wanted to say one or two things to him before turning to the real problem--mining subsidence. I believe that the Minister is a fair Minister. We often talk outside this place and he says very nice things to me and comes my way on the problems. But when I speak to him in the House he is really vicious to me. I am only speaking on behalf of those whom I represent in my constituency who have problems.
I do not altogether blame the Minister. I blame the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, because not all that long ago he was the Secretary of State for Energy. When we put the problems to him, he did not want to know. Then following on from him, as Secretary of State for Energy, was the present Secretary of State for Social Security. He did not help us either. They just did not want to know. I got the distinct impression, when they were Secretaries of State for Energy, that they were just letting the National Coal Board, as it was known at that time, do as it liked. It could walk all over those people whom we represent--those complainants who are not and have not been getting a fair deal with their mining subsidence claims.
However, the situation has changed. We had two years of MacGregor, and look at the mess he made of the mining industry. People have subsidence problems because of the mining industry. I was lucky enough to be selected to initiate an Adjournment debate only three or four weeks ago, when, once again, I chose the subject of mining subsidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield also spoke in that debate. The Minister was going our way that night. I could see a light in the tunnel. I am hoping that we will see a massive light today in the interests of our constituents. We need help back in the mining areas.
The Government encourage people to own their own properties, and that has happened. However, many people in our mining areas have problems with their properties because of the damage caused by the mining industry. The Government have a responsibility. I am sick to death of seeing the Minister about the problem. The Minister just passes it back to the mining industry- -British Coal and the National Coal Board before that. Many Nottinghamshire hon. Members, for example, went to see the chairman of the board. He told us that we had to go back to the area
Column 1260where the problems are. He passed the buck back to the areas. We then go to see the area director, but we get no change there either. We are in the same boat--no one wants to do anything. We go to the Minister and he passes it back. We go to the chairman of the board and he passes it back, because he says that it is a matter for legislation. What we are appealing for this morning is a change in that legislation in the interests of those people whom we represent. I shall carry on with what I have to say now that the appropriate Minister has taken his place.
Mr. Haynes : No, I shall not start again ; that would take too much time. Other hon. Members who have problems in their areas want to speak. The hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), for example, has a pit in his area. Before he was elected to the House, there were a number of pits there. No doubt he has subsidence problems in his constituency, because he is here this morning and is obviously interested in the debate. I hope that he will put up as good an argument as his colleagues before him.
Before you came into the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was a little disappointed that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) was slipped into the debate. I thought to myself, "What will he talk about? How many pits are there in Hornsey?" He happens, however, to be the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment. I thought to myself that he would be on our side--and, by God, he was. He spoke about the unfairness of some of the public bodies, who walk all over everybody instead of giving fair treatment. He was right. I hope that people outside will read the hon. Member's contribution because it was made by a senior Conservative. The Minister is faced with a real problem today--or is he? I do not think he has a problem because he can get up at the Dispatch Box to tell us what he will do.
I shall cite two examples only, but they are really bad ones. The first concerns an 82-year-old lady whose husband worked at the pit. They saved and saved. They did not go into an elderly people's bungalow supplied by the local authority ; they bought their own out of the savings made from the husband's life-long work at the pit. What happened? The property was seriously damaged so they made a claim to, at that time, the National Coal Board for that damage to be repaired or for compensation to be given. But what happened? The poor fellow died and left a widow on her own. She came crying to me at my Saturday morning surgery because she had made a claim to the NCB, but it had told her that it was out of time. That is scandalous. The industry did the damage and it has every cause to put it right by repair or through compensation. When that old lady made her claim the board said that it was going to go under her house again with a different seam. It said that it would not pay out twice and that it would do the necessary little repairs and would do the real jobs later. Nine and a half years later the board said that she was out of time. That is scandalous. She had a genuine claim on a genuine property and yet those--I nearly called them something then, but I just managed to hold it back in time. At that time the NCB continued to reject her claim in line with the legislation. That shows just how stupid the industry is.
Column 1261That legislation must be changed in the interests of the people and that is why we are here giving the Minister a rough ride, I hope, so that he will come our way and put matters right.
Currently some people can accept compensation instead of British Coal calling in an outside contractor to do the repairs. In my second example the people said, "We will take the compensation" ; but that compensation covered nowhere near the repairs to be done to the property. Who the hell do the people at Hobart house and in the various areas think that they are kidding? It is time that the Minister got on his bike and travelled around and told the area directors and the bloke at Hobart house where to get off. The Minister should tell them to get something done in the interests of the people who have had a real raw deal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) mentioned how, under the NCB regime, officials were on the fiddle--I know that it is history, but it damn well happened. They went down the line for it, and quite right too. The result, however, is that the people we represent have suffered. Those officials should be locked up in a cell because of what they have done. They fiddled from the taxpayer and they should be ashamed of themselves, it is the people we represent who have done the suffering.
I hope that the Minister will take on board what I have said as it is a serious matter. Before he came in I said that he was a fair Minister. In my Adjournment debate he started to come our way. I am convinced that the Minister is concerned about what has happened out there over the years. I do not blame him for it ; I blame the people before him. He is, however, coming our way as he has talked sensibly about the problem and I hope that he will do so again today. There are all manner of things happening. I went to look at two bungalows in my constituency that were advertised. I knew that it was an area in which properties have been damaged by mining subsidence. Because of the serious damage to the two bungalows, British Coal bought them from the owners so that they could move on and buy other properties. That shows how much money it would have cost to repair them. British Coal then put the bungalows on the market to "flog" them, and they did it through an estate agent. In the advertisements for those properties it was not mentioned that they were affected by mining subsidence. Somebody could have bought a pig in a poke and found out about it afterwards. That is the sort of thing that is going on in British Coal. It is damned well deceitful, and it should be checked by the Minister.
Some of my constituents have had to wait for a very long time. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston talked about the Waddilove report. The previous Secretary of State sat on that report and was not prepared to do anything about it. It was two years before it got to the House and before we knew exactly what Waddilove had said. When we did receive it, we realised why the Secretary of State had sat on it. It was clearly in favour of the complainants. No wonder the Secretary of State sat on it. The matter is now wide open and we know what the Waddilove report says and how the complainants are suffering. We know how British Coal is treating people and it is high time that something was done.
Column 1262The first question that I ask people who come to see me about a subsidence problem is whether they have an agent to represent them to British Coal. Nine times out of ten they say yes. However, hon. Members have found that they are doing the agent's flipping job, and that is wrong because it is not our responsibility. When the complainant talks to the agent, the agent quietly says, "Go and have a word with your Member of Parliament." It lands on our doorstep and people come to us. Hon. Members have talked about the thousands of claims that drop on our doorstep and for which we are not responsible. Our responsibility is to see that the Minister and the Government do something about the problem.
Mr. Andy Stewart : The hon. Member touches on a topical subject. I recently wrote to an agent and received from him a letter on A4 paper. In the last paragraph he said that he had written to me as a favour because he is not paid to write to Members of Parliament.
Mr. Haynes : No, because I have not yet answered the question asked by the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart). I am really drawing the Conservative Members who are trying to get in. The hon. Member for Sherwood is correct.
Agents get a percentage rake-off on the compensation settlement. I visited a property for which British Coal had offered £6,500. It was the gable end house of five very old properties and the gable wall was falling. The agent wrote to me and said that the compensation offered by British Coal was not enough and that the claim was worth £32,000. That speaks for itself. The chappie wanted to accept the £6, 500 but the agent said no, thinking, "I will get 5 per cent. of this lot and if it is a large figure I will get a large amount." That has been going on along with the fiddling by British Coal. Blokes in British Coal were getting a large percentage rake-off as well. That is why they have been sent to Lincoln prison and they will be there a long time.
When British Coal is not prepared to move and the agent gets into difficulties, he suggests taking British Coal to court. He puts it in writing, but finishes off by saying, "It will cost you £5,000." Who will write out a cheque for that amount? Will that elderly widow, for example? Such a figure is scandalous. Big businesses do not have a problem. The Mansfield brewery was affected by subsidence, and British Coal rejected its claim. The brewery had an agent, who told it to take British Coal to court. The brewery is rolling in money. It makes masses of profits. It even has a big advertisement using ex-President Reagan drinking a pint of Mansfield bitter, so it must make a nice profit. Because it is a big business that can afford to take British Coal to court, when it threatened to do so British Coal coughed up. The ordinary person cannot do that because he cannot put his hands on such amounts of money.
I have had enough of the buck passing. The buck stops at that Dispatch Box in front of the Minister. I hope that the Minister will pick up that buck. If he wants, I will put a buck on the Dispatch Box so that, when he gets up to grab it, he will tell us what he proposes to do.
Column 1263We have had a flipping good debate and hon. Members have expressed themselves well. I congratulate Conservative Members on the way in which they have conducted themselves. They have an incentive to do so. There were some elections yesterday, so no wonder the beggars are coming in here today to support an Opposition motion. They are looking after their backs. I do not mind that. They are entitled to do that, especially when, at the same time, they are speaking out on behalf of people who have had a raw deal.
I was a little disappointed by one thing. I do not want to bring in the National Union of Mineworkers or the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, but the hon. Member for Sherwood did when there was no need for it. He used a political argument, just as the Minister did when, from a sedentary position, he accused the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston--the hon. Gentleman may not have heard this, but I did--of having a financial interest. The hon. Gentleman might have, but in the properties that he owns in my constituency live people who are affected by mining subsidence. I will back the hon. Gentleman to the hilt because he is speaking in the interests of those people, so he has every right to clobber the Government for what they have not been doing about mining subsidence. I have cleared the air for the hon. Gentleman, who made a first-class contribution. The Minister could only make snide remarks which were uncalled for, because the hon. Gentleman was right.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield and I have been criticised by the UDM for raising the issue of mining subsidence. It said that by bawling our heads off in the House of Commons about mining subsidence, we were closing pits. However, I remember that the general secretary of the UDM in Nottinghamshire had his property seen to and done beautifully because he had a claim against British Coal. He does not own the property--it belongs to the union. It cost a fortune to put the house right and now he has the neck to criticise my hon. Friend and I for raising, on behalf of thousands of constituents, the problem of subsidence. It was nasty to say that after his own property had been repaired.
I have tried so often to deliver the knock-out blow to the Minister but I have not yet been able to hit him. We talk nicely to each other outside the Chamber. We do not talk as I am talking now. On this occasion we are really mounting an action in the interests of our constituents. I think that we are winning on points, and I think that we shall win the battle. British Coal--and the National Coal Board before it--has not given a fair deal to those who made claims. I feel within my bones that the Minister will do something about the problem for he is a sincere chap. He has told me privately that he does not like unfairness. I know that I am giving away secrets, but he is prepared to take action to eradicate unfairness.
We have had unfairness for a long time. At long last people have brought themselves together and, in effect, have said, "It is going to stop. The buck stops here." There is no doubt that the Minister will get the message when a meeting takes place next Tuesday. We who represent our constituents back home will come to Westminster to put the case to the Minister, and it is a good one.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield on picking coal mining subsidence as the topic of his motion. It is a beauty. He could have selected another topic, but instead he chose the right one. I believe that the Minister has got the message. If he does not tell us
Column 1264what we all want to hear, he is in for a rough ride next Tuesday. He will not buy me off with a cup of coffee and biscuit in the Department. He will have to listen to what is said as he has had to listen to us today.
I hope that the Minister will come our way and that we shall sort out all the problems so that our consitutents can say, "That Minister is a first- class chap. He has given us what we want. Our representatives did a good job on Friday morning and afternoon in the House of Commons. The result is that the Minister--a wonderful young fellow--stood at the Dispatch Box and gave us what we wanted. He gave us something for which we have been fighting for a long time." I hope that the battle has been won. I hope that it is all over and that we shall be working together in the interests of our people back home.
Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth) : I represent a declining mining area, so I am especially grateful to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I declare an interest, although it is perhaps not necessary to do so. My family was involved in tin mining in Cornwall for many generations and I feel the sadness that is felt by my constituents that only one pit is left in Bosworth. Desford has gone, Merrilees deep drift mine has gone, and Bagworth is soon to close.
It is clear from the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Woodcock) and those of the hon. Members for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) that there is still great concern about compensation arrangements. I apologise to the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). I was unable to be present to hear his speech as I was detained on other duties earlier in the day. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) had hoped to be in his place, but unfortunately, for pressing reasons, he has been unable to attend. In his constituency, in an area part of which was part of my constituency until the boundary changes, there are I understand problems near former pits around Ellistown, the Nailstone mine which is still working, Snibstone where the new mining museum has been opened and is such a success, Whitwick and Lount.
Subsidence can be fast, slow and unexpected. The Dolcoath mine between Redruth and Camborne in Cornwall, where my family came from, is famous for the enormous extent of its underground workings. A rather unusual case of subsidence occurred at that mine in 1828. A book from the time states :
"The movement--which continued for several weeks--was so slow that the miners who at its commencement were employed at deep levels, by climbing uncrushed portions of the ladders in some places and waiting their opportunity and creeping through crevices between moving rocks in others, managed to reach surface at the west part of the mine in safety."
I am sure that we are all pleased that miners would never be placed in that predicament today. However, mine subsidence still occurs. The point of my little story is that it can occur long after mines have been sunk. That is the problem that we are finding in my constituency.
The motion implies that British Coal and its predecessor, the National Coal Board, have done next to nothing to compensate those suffering from the effects of mining subsidence. I cannot accept that. Something has
Column 1265been done. Similarly, I cannot accept that the Government have taken no action. We must recognise that the Government have acted. I want to refer to some of the problems which have affected my constituency.
I welcome the clear undertaking given by the Minister earlier this year that he was aware of the real problems associated with subsidence. He said that
"The question is how to ensure that those affected by subsidence get a fair deal."--[ Official Report, 11 May 1989 ; Vol. 152, c. 1104].
I suggest that the Government have acted to ensure that those affected by subsidence get a fair deal, but they have not done enough. Many of the people affected in my constituency will, like others today, be looking to the Minister for new initiatives to deal with the problem. We have already heard about the important recommendations in the Waddilove report which was based on the 1981 report of the commission on energy and the environment.
The Waddilove committee made 65 recommendations, but it did not recommend a radical revision or overhaul of the system. One principal recommendation involved improvement of public notification procedures. That recommendation, which has been accepted, has had a very beneficial effect. I shall illustrate that by referring to discussions that I had yesterday with council officers from Hinckley and Bosworth borough council. On 20 June, the council's planning committee will consider a report based on a report provided by British Coal about the workings around Bagworth, Nailstone and Markfield. I am pleased to say that the Coal Board's report covers the problems in some detail, for example, outlining the difficulties faced in the areas east of Wigg Farm, south of Bagworth colliery and north of Fox Covert Farm. The report does not skimp and it has had helpful and useful results--I was going to say "meaningful", but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) would agree that that is a terribly abused word.
As a result of other Waddilove recommendations, British Coal is at least committed to good standards of repair in all cases of subsidence. We have already heard why that commitment may not have been fulfilled in all circumstances, but the fact that claimants can now use their own contractors for repairs, for instance, is significant, as is the fact that British Coal provides the Secretary of State for Energy with an annual report on the administration of subsidence claims. I understand that, so far, British Coal has implemented more than half the committee's recommendations, although I agree with the hon. Member for Ashfield that the presentation of the report may have been a slow process.
Another helpful development has been the publication of a new Department of Energy leaflet offering advice on handling subsidence problems, which is a credit to my hon. Friend the Minister. The inclusion of the address of the area surveyor and minerals manager will make it easier for people to contact British Coal officials. British Coal's new procedures, the annual report to the Secretary of State and the report of mining activities to councils are three steps in the right direction.
There is some evidence that the impact of subsidence problems on householders has been reduced. Both the number of new claims and the total number of claims outstanding have fallen. I believe that in 1983-84 some
Column 126650,000 claims were outstanding, but in 1986 -87 the figure was down to 36,000, and last year saw a further fall of 14 per cent. to 31, 000.
Mr. Tredinnick : I accept that. In my constituency, certainly, the six-year rule presents claimants with considerable problems. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that point sympathetically.
British Coal now takes more account of subsidence in its planning ; it also includes it in the costing of all proposed workings. There has been progress, although the pace may be that not of the hare but of a somewhat smaller creature.
There are serious problems in my constituency of which I hope the Minister will take note. We have heard about the problems facing individuals, but businesses also face tremendous problems. In my constituency, the Bagworth to Merrylees road was closed for more than a month--due to subsidence outside the main gate of the old Desford colliery. The Merrylees mine area is now an industrial complex offering employment to many of my constituents. When the road was closed it posed an enormous burden on the businesses which had to make a long detour. There is a good case for those companies receiving some compensation. The companies include major employers such as Butterley Buick and Hercock Simpson, which receive nothing from British Coal although their businesses have suffered seriously as a result of this problem.
It is no good British Coal saying that the problems are minimal. Not long ago in my constituency we had the case of the disappearing digger. I am referring not to an Australian who had too many "triple Xs", although when we consider the result of the recent Test match some of us might wish that Alan Border were a disappearing digger, but to a disappearing JCB which popped into a hole and could not be found. It simply sank overnight in an area that is supposed to be fairly safe, the site of the old Merrylees deep drift mine. Sporting facilities in the Bosworth area face problems. The Bosworth parliamentary division has a long tradition of bowling and cricket, which I support at a time when sport seems in decline in this country. It is a credit to my constituents that they have such tremendous sporting interests. It was tough on the Barlestone mining institute when its bowling green suffered subsidence and the club received nothing for it. Barlestone football club pitch suffered movement too. In this House we are familiar with moving goalposts and tilting pitches because we play on them all the time, but I do not see why my constituents should have to suffer that.
The National Coal Board sells off houses and, in the small print of the contract, exempts itself from responsibility for any future problem. What is the use of a beautiful ex-Coal Board house which might make a lovely home when who knows what rabbit warrens of mining passages may run underneath? I say, "Who knows?" because none of us knows and none of us can find out because the information is not available. That is probably because it is a nationalised industry. If it were privatised it might have kept proper records.
Column 1267We could all give cases, and I know of many of them. The subsidence problems faced by a family business in my constituency should go on the record. A. E. Statham and Sons process and distribute potatoes. Mr. Statham built a factory on land above old mine workings. Very soon subsidence occurred which necessitated repairs to the floors and foundations of the main storage area and the walls. The problem was first raised by my predecessor, Sir Adam Butler, who served his constituents so well. He started work on the case in 1980, and I have followed his work since then. The Coal Board accepted liability and arranged for the work to be carried out. The beginning of the necessary repairs was also the start of a long saga of frustration about the standard of repairs. Another big problem that my constituent faced was that British Coal was not prepared to carry out the repairs outside usual working hours. My constituent was trying to run a business facing this enormous hurdle. The specifications for the work were poorly drawn up and the job was not properly supervised. Fortunately, Mr. Statham managed to continue in business and, to cut a long story short--think of the parliamentary time which has gone into this long case--he received some, albeit inadequate, compensation.
I know that other hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, so I will finish without giving the House the summary that I had planned to give. I hope that the Minister will respond positively and I look forward to hearing his speech.
Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West) : I had not originally intended to take part in this important debate, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). At one time in a previous incarnation I almost became secretary of the Co-operative movement's education committee in Mansfield but, perhaps wisely, it chose not to employ me. In any case, I know the area reasonably well--
I represent what used to be a coal mining constituency, although now there are no active pits within its boundaries. Some of the few remaining miners in my constituency are employed in the Longannet complex. I shall allude to it again in a moment.
We are discussing the impact of mining on the environment and the consensus is that those who disrupt or pollute the environment should pay for the social and economic disruption that they cause. Having established this basic principle, we need to find a way to put it into practice. I have received many letters from constituents about subsidence caused by British Coal, not below but above ground--by the number of lorries that pass through a small village in my constituency called Cairneyhill, driving from opencast mining operations in Fife.
How we enforce the principle that the polluter pays is what counts. My hon. Friends have made a good case for saying that the enforcement procedures bear too heavily on those who cannot afford to go to court and are weighted too much in favour of the big corporations, such as British Coal, which can afford to put off the inconvenienced individual who suffers damage and disruption to his property.
Column 1268We must take national action. It is not only public corporations that mishandle the individual : private corporations can do the same. We need a scheme that can help these people, and the scheme that we have is legal aid. However, because of the requirement for a reasonable chance of success in the courts, legal aid is difficult to obtain. There is a case for someone such as an independent ombudsman to assist the aggrieved individual.
There is increasing public worry about pollution, and there is some indication of that in the likely results of the European elections, with the exit polls suggesting that the Green party achieved 2 million votes. That illustrates the underlying concern of people in Europe as a whole about the environment. The Coal Board is sensitive to criticism in respect of acid rain and is anxious to prove its claim that it is not as great a polluter as has been suggested. The Longannet complex is closely linked to a power station and produces coal having a very slow sulphur content. As the Minister knows, important negotiations are under way between the South of Scotland electricity board and British Coal over a reasonably long-term contract for the supply of 2 million tonnes of power station coal. If Longannet does not win that contract, there will be considerable subsidence in central Scotland because a coal mine there dedicated to a power station will no longer be utilised. The social cost of that will be borne by the community as a whole and by the Coal Board, whose £400 million operating profit would be substantially reduced.
Concern has been expressed about the effect of subsidence on property. Under the old rating system, such damage would be reflected in lower rates, but under the change to poll tax property owners will have to pay the full sum regardless of the state of their property. Because I want to be fair to Conservative Members who have massive constituency interests, I bring my remarks to a conclusion with this observation. I do not know what is the practice now between the usual channels, but when I entered the House in 1970, if an understanding was reached between right hon. and hon. Members as to the allocation of time available for a debate, their respective Whips would get together and reach an understanding. That was done to protect the interests of Back Benchers. Today is for Back Benchers, not for members of the Government or Opposition Front Benchers. Nevertheless, I understand that the type of friendly understanding to which I referred has broken down. Mr. Speaker can do very little about it, but Back Benchers ought to put down some markers. They should reach a harmonious understanding on the timetabling--I use that term loosely--of motions. The usual channels ought to take account of it. The dreary procedure of talking out motions would not then be needed.
Some, though not many, of my constituents have suffered from the effects of mining subsidence. However, we ought to look after the interests of all Back Benchers, particularly when they are successful in the ballot.
Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud) : I do not represent a constituency with a coal mining interest, but I take a particular interest in the law relating to compulsory purchase and compensation. The steady and logical arguments that are always pursued by my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) have been of great benefit to the mining
Column 1269industry for some years. They are of considerably more benefit than the erratic outpourings of one trade union leader.
The Minister's career is rapidly recovering from the flattering remarks that were made about him by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes). He will, I believe, have to introduce at some time a Bill to cover compulsory purchase and compensation. It is not just a question of subsidence within the mining industry. It is a complex and complicated issue. It began in the middle of the 19th century. I apologise to Hansard for using the Latin phrase "quicquid plantatur solo, solo cedit"--that whatsoever is planted in or attached to the soil remains with the soil.
It was rather hard luck for any farmer who died on 28 September : the landlord automatically took his crop on 29 September. Gradual progress was made towards the end of the 19th century. Further progress was made in 1919 under the Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act. Yet more of the customs of the country were covered in McCartney v. Metropolitan Board of Works, a major decision affecting the law on compensation. In 1946--not a particularly good year for legislation--there was the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act which led to a number of additional complications. By 1947, things were getting even more desperate. Under the Town and Country Planning Act the Labour Government tried to nationalise all development land values. That did not last for very long. There have been town and country planning Acts in almost every year since then. There was also the Land Compensation Act 1973.
The legislative programme of the last 100 to 150 years has led to great complexities. I ask my hon. Friend not to go down the same road. I sat for many hours in the Committee that considered the Water Bill. The Minister recognised that a new compulsory purchase code for land held by water companies would be needed. Many similar matters are covered by the Acts covering electricity and gas supplies. Will every statutory undertaking need a separate code? A comprehensive Bill dealing with compulsory purchase compensation must be introduced, but it must be sufficiently flexible to take account of the needs of different industries, including subsidence in the mining industry. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) drew attention to many problems, but many of them have been created because the nationalised industries do not have flexibility to look after people in a reasonable way. Now that at long last the mining industry is becoming increasingly profitable, we can surely afford to address compulsory purchase and compensation in a more flexible way.