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Mr. Jeremy Corbyn accordingly presented a Bill to require local authorities and health authorities to monitor the condition of their retired population ; to eliminate standing charges on gas, electricity and water ; to exempt pensioners from licence charges and telephone rental ; to extend pensioners' concessionary fare schemes ; to make provision for the calculation of old age pensions by reference to average earnings ; and to appoint a Minister with responsibility for retired people : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 23 February and to be printed. [Bill 54.]
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is there a mechanism whereby we can put on record the fact that, while my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) was introducing his important Bill, only four Conservative Members were present on the Back Benches? That is a blue snub for grey power.
Coal Industry Bill
Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are about to debate the Coal Industry Bill on Report and on Third Reading. Clause 4 deals with the increase in opencast excavation from 25,000 tonnes to 250,000 tonnes, which means that a lot of money is involved in opencast mining. Will you state, Mr. Speaker, that if any Tory Member is about to line his pockets because he has interests in opencast mining or in private mining, which is also to be increased, he should declare his interest? It is high time that such people were prevented from voting on these matters.
For the purposes of this Act the "accumulated group deficit" shall include
(1) sums owed by the Corporation to the Treasury or the Bank of England,
(2) sums owed by the Corporation to banks and other financial institutions,
(3) sufficient sums to cover all outstanding claims on the Corporation for compensation for coal mining subsidence damage, (
(4) such additional sums as the Corporation would have been liable for if the recommendations contained in the Report of the Subsidence Compensation Review Committee on the Report and Compensation System for Coal Mining Subsidence Damage had been enacted before 30th March 1990.'.-- [Mr. Dobson.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
When the Coal Industry Bill was published, many people were disappointed that it did not include proposals to improve the arrangements for compensating people for damage caused to their homes by mining subsidence. To be fair, it was not just Labour Members who were disappointed ; even some of the Tory Members involved expressed their disappointment that the opportunity had been missed. We are all at a loss to know why such proposals were not included.
No hon. Member was as disappointed, however, as the people who live in areas that are severely affected by mining subsidence, and probably the most disappointed of all were the people who live in the Nottingham coalfield, where the problem is particularly bad. People living in such areas suffer damage to their homes. Their children suffer damage to their schools, and other public buildings, too, are damaged. There is damage to water pipes, gas pipes, and sewers, and farmers' land is damaged by breaks in the drainage system. The Government say that they really cannot find any place in their legislative programme for provisions to
Column 170improve the compensation system. They have also said that they cannot offer an improvement in that system in this Bill --for some reason or another, it is not considered appropriate. The former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy, who has now moved on to the Department of the Environment, said that the Bill was a subsidy Bill, not a subsidence Bill, although he attributed that bon mot originally to one of his colleagues.
It is strange to hear that this is only a subsidy Bill because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) pointed out, it provides for a tenfold increase in the size of private opencast workings, with all the environmental damage and dangers to health that they bring with them. It also provides for a fivefold increase in the number of miners who may be employed underground in private mines, which are at least four times as dangerous as the mines of British Coal.
The Government managed to draft a Bill to cope with those non-subsidy issues, both of which will have adverse effects on the coalfield communities--on the miners going below ground and on the people living above ground and facing the damage that opencasting usually brings with it. One might have thought that the Government would make some effort to introduce an offsetting provision to help the coalfield communities. They should have sorted out the problem of compensation scheme once and for all, and the Bill could have given them the opportunity to do that.
I can think of only one explanation for their different approach : presumably, those in favour of bigger opencast mines and those in favour of increasing the number of miners going down terribly dangerous private pits must have made private representations to the Government. They include Tory supporters such as Taylor Woodrow, Costain and Wimpey, which will undoubtedly make money out of the changes.
They are the only people who can have advocated the changes. There have been no official reports proposing them. There has been no long series of official inquiries into the problems of opencasting. There is little evidence of any pressure from hon. Members to increase the size of opencast workings. If there has been any pressure, it has been to try to persuade the Government to reduce the size of those workings.
We have a strange difficulty, it seems, over subsidence. Great efforts have been made in the House to get the compensation scheme improved and made the law of the land. I shall describe the various stages in the development of proposals to improve the scheme since the Government came to office. In September 1981, the Commission on Energy and the Environment made certain proposals about improving the compensation scheme. Its report contained a chapter on subsidence and recommended improvements.
It took the Government until May 1983, almost two years later, to publish a response to that report. They did not show much urgency at the time. They can say that, shortly before they published their response, they set up the Waddilove committee to report on the compensation system for coal mining subsidence damage. Fair do's to the committee--it got on with its job. A year later, in May 1984, it produced a thorough report with 65 specific recommendations. The Government received that report in 1984. No one could accuse them of being in a rush to judgment on it, because they did not produce their response until October 1987. That meant that they took almost three weeks to
Column 171consider each recommendation in the report. It took them another year before they produced a consultation document on what they themselves proposed to do to improve the compensation scheme. They produced it in April 1988.
When will the Government introduce a proper statutory compensation scheme? Other hon. Members have also asked that question. I have been checking what has happened in the House since the Waddilove report was produced. There have been dozens of written questions, seven or eight oral questions, no fewer than four private Members' Bills, early-day motions, Select Committee inquiries, and debates about this topic. This difficult topic has also been mentioned in a large number of general debates.
I have a computer printout listing all the times when mining subsidence has been raised since the Waddilove committee reported. It goes on and on. It contains page after page of hon. Members trying to represent their constituents to make sure that something is done. Unfortunately, the only people who are not doing anything are the Government. On several occasions, successive Ministers have said that a Bill to change the law will be introduced at the earliest opportunity.
Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark) : Many Conservative Members would like to see such a Bill. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a statutory compensation scheme would require several more clauses and would be quite complicated? The Government's objective is to get this Bill through Parliament at the earliest possible stage. Of course, a further Bill will have to come forward at another time.
Mr. Dobson : Several comments are to be made in response to the hon. Gentleman's reasonable point. If they had wanted, during this Session, the Government could have introduced a separate Bill on subsidence. Instead, they have decided to introduce Bills that kick lumps off the National Health Service and other Bills on matters of apparent high priority for the Prime Minister. It is clear that subsidence is not a high priority for the Prime Minister. Even so, it would have been possible to introduce into the Bill provisions which would allow the establishment of a statutory compensation scheme. Although Opposition Members have criticised the Bill and, because of its threat to miners' lives, voted against it on Second Reading, we responsibly made sure that it got out of Committee quickly and that it will quickly be considered on Report, because it is necessary that the large sums that British Coal requires must be available by the end of March. Equally, even now, if the Secretary of State undertakes to introduce substantial changes to the Bill in the House of Lords to include subsidence, we will guarantee that we will not use that decision to obstruct the passage of this Bill or the passage of proper measures to improve subsidence compensation.
Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley West and Penistone) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me, because my constituency has been devastated by mining subsidence, and over the years we have been pressing the Government for some new compensation and for a new look at things. We suspect that the Government are holding their fire purely and simply for the privatisation of
Column 172mines. However, would it not be sensible for the Government to bring in new legislation before that happens, if it is likely to happen, so that they can have something on the statute book to alleviate the fears of the many people who think that the Government are playing fast and loose and hard and fast until the mines are privatised?
Mr. Dobson : I know that those fears are shared by a considerable number of people living in those areas that are severely affected by mining subsidence. My hon. Friend is right--logically, the Government should have introduced something on subsidence in the Bill, as my hon. Friend knows, because much of the rest of the Bill is intended as a paving stone for privatisation. People are concerned about what will happen and that the provisions for subsidence will be pushed further and further back and that we will then be told by the Government that it would be unfair to impose those awful burdens on a privatised coal industry. That may be what is happening. It is certainly what many people fear may be happening.
For more than five years, the promise to do something about the compensation scheme has not been fulfilled. People living in the areas affected by subsidence are getting restless about the delays, and there is no reason why we should blame them. From time to time, Ministers have said that it is all right, because British Coal has already implemented over half the recommendations of the Waddilove committee. So it has--and all credit to British Coal--but British Coal cannot change the law. It cannot introduce a statutory compensation scheme. Only Governments can change the law. When Ministers say that British Coal has done its stuff, they are highlighting the fact that everybody else has done their stuff as well, and that only the Government have not responded and done their job properly. It is now up to the Government to settle this problem because it severely affects thousands of people.
There are conflicting estimates of the number of people involved, but the lowest estimate that I could find--I suppose that it is understandable that it is the lowest, because it is British Coal's estimate in its last report- -is that over 25,000 valid claims may lie against British Coal. However, there are many higher estimates, especially in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. As I have said, in fairness to British Coal and to the House and because I do not want to exaggerate, I have chosen the lowest estimate that I have been able to find. Others go well above double that figure.
Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw) : I do not want to dispute what my hon. Friend has said, but is he aware that Mansfield district council and other councils in my area sent a questionnaire to every house locally and received 33,000 or more answers from tenants and owner-occupiers who said that their houses had been affected by subsidence? So my hon. Friend's estimate might be rather low.
Mr. Dobson : My hon. Friend has taken literally the next line of what I intended saying. It is certainly true that there have been much higher estimates, including estimates covering the affected districts in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
It is necessary to emphasise to people who are not familiar with the problems of subsidence just what effects it can have, in this case, just on people's homes, and
Column 173leaving out major public buildings and such things. The Commission on Energy and the Environment has classified subsidence damage, starting with the lowest classification of "very slight" or "negligible", which includes hair cracks in the plaster, isolated slight fractures in the building that are not visible outside. As most people will know, no house-proud family likes even hairline cracks in the internal plaster. Indeed, if most hon. Members were faced with hairline cracks in the internal plaster of their front rooms or whatever they like to call them, they would want something done about it. They would want it put right as quickly as possible, to the highest possible standard. However, that is not necessarily available here.
Mr. Skinner : My hon. Friend is right about this House. I think that he was talking about the houses of hon. Members. There was a classic example of the Government's attitude recently in the Houses of Parliament. Although the damage was not done by mining subsidence, it was significant that, when a little bit of plaster fell from the ceiling of the House of Lords, all hell broke loose. As a result, a string of architects longer than the so-called dole queue went running into the House of Lords to find a remedy. The ceiling was then propped up for 12 months or more. The estimate for the total cost of putting that matter right was over £250,000.
That shows the double standard that operates in the country. If there is a hairline crack in the House of Lords or elsewhere in the Houses of Parliament, the Government will go to any lengths to put the matter right. When it comes to sorting out the problems of an elderly pensioner in my constituency or in the constituencies of my hon. Friends, the Government hold things up year after year. The same is true of Bolsover church. We have battled for several years to have the subsidence damage put right. The Government know how to operate double standards when it comes to subsidence.
Mr. Dobson : I recall my hon. Friend raising the matter of damage to Bolsover church several times in the House. I wonder how swiftly the Government would respond if hairline cracks appeared in the new ornamental gates at the end of Downing street. I bet they would not have to negotiate with the Coal Board to put the gates right. The next category to which the Commission referred was slight damage. This was :
"Several slight fractures showing inside the buildings. Doors and windows may stick slightly. Repairs to decoration probably necessary."
Again, we would not put up with such damage in our own homes, at least not voluntarily.
The next category is described as appreciable damage. It includes "Slight fractures showing on the outside of building (or one main fracture). Doors and windows sticking."--
not "slightly" this time--
"Service pipes may fracture".
We then go on to severe damage. Service pipes are not simply fractured but disrupted. This class of damage also includes "Open fracture requiring rebonding and allowing weather into the structure. Window and door frames distorted, floors sloping noticeably, walls leaning or bulging noticeably. Some loss of bearing in beams. If compressive damage, overlapping of roof joints and lifting of brickwork".
Column 174That is not the end of it. We go on to very severe damage. The classification starts :
"As above but worse, and requiring partial or complete rebuilding. Roof and floor beams lose bearing and walls lean badly and need shoring up. Windows broken with distortion. Severe slopes of floors. If compressive damage,"--
instead of stretching--
"severe buckling and bulging of the roofs and walls."
Mr. Ashton : And then the dog refuses to go into the house.
Mr. Dobson : Yes. This is a serious matter. Damage is done to the homes of people who, like most of us, take pride in their homes. Stress is caused as the damage happens and people wonder how it is happening, whether it will get worse, and how long it will go on. Then they suffer disturbance while the damage is put right, if they finally come to an agreement with the Coal Board.
Some friends of mine who are reasonably well-off--they are both doctors who live on the edge of Nottingham--had to move out of their home for almost four months because such extensive work was required to put their home into reasonable nick and allow them to live in the manner to which they were, rightly, accustomed. Many other people are forced to leave their homes for similar periods. They are people who probably cannot afford it as well as my friends could and who cannot easily find alternative accommodation. The matter is serious for the people involved.
It is stressful when one's house is cracking and buckling. It is stressful if one has to stay in it while work is being done. It is probably equally stressful to move into somewhere smaller while work is being done.
Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford) : Great distress is also caused to people whose properties may not have been blighted by subsidence but whose properties have been rendered valueless when neighbouring properties have been so affected. One day, a person may have a property worth £40,000 or £50,000 and the next day nothing.
Mr. Dobson : My hon. Friend is right. Blight affects whole areas as well as individuals. Only a half-wit would buy an undamaged house in a row where others are damaged until it was known that the subsidence had stopped or that work would be done to make the houses safe. Such stress is harmful for the people concerned. That is all the more reason why we should work to remove any unnecessary stress which, in the current system, is the gratuitous problem of having to have a great barney with British Coal in order to get things put right. That is why not just those directly affected but people living in areas that are generally affected by mining subsidence join us in believing that the time for action has come. That is why we have tabled new clause 1.
Subsidence is a problem in many coalfields, but it applies particularly in Nottinghamshire. I do not know what the Nottingham miners have done to upset the Government. The Bill provides for redundancy money which will help to put Nottingham miners out of jobs and it provides for bigger private opencast workings. About a fortnight ago, the House passed the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill to increase the coal-handling plant on Humberside so that cheap, slave-labour, foreign coal could compete with the Nottingham miners' product.
Column 175Moreover, in the past few days we have discovered that at least two gas-fired power stations are to be built at Killingholme on Humberside near the Nottinghamshire coalfield. They are about to receive the Secretary of State's consent.
In view of all that, one would have thought that the Government would have done something to compensate the Nottingham miners for all that is happening to Nottinghamshire and to the other coalfields. Surely we should act now. The Opposition will co-operate in any way with a new Bill or the additional clauses to this Bill in order to implement the Waddilove proposals. They are good and sound proposals, which have been discussed long enough. People understand them and want them enacted. That is the reason for the new clause.
Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe) : I want to associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), particularly on subsidence. No one who has lived in Nottinghamshire all his life and who has been involved in the coal industry in many ways during that time--as I have--could be happy with the overall situation on subsidence. Many hon. Members will have dealt with difficult subsidence cases, and one reason why I gave evidence to the Waddilove committee was my concern for individuals who must take on a major industry such as British Coal with few resources to do so.
A problem arose when agents working in Nottinghamshire took on many cases at a time when cash compensation was available. The coal board paid out a lot of money for subsidence which, in many cases, was not used for the job for which it was intended. That is one reason why I have suggested that if anyone receives cash compensation, which is now much harder to get, it should be entered on the deeds or in the Land Registry so that any subsequent purchaser knows that a claim has been made and cash has been paid and so that a surveyor can ensure that the money has been used in the way that it should have been. I feel that there should be repairs rather than cash compensation, except when there is a tilted floor or something of that sort with which it would be better to live, with compensation, instead of pulling the house down.
This all adds up to the case for more urgent consideration of the subject. Clause 4 on opencasting strengthens my belief that one reason why we have relatively low-cost coal is the forebearance of those who suffer when it is extracted. This is true of deep mine pits, through subsidence, and opencast mines, through the long-term problems which are created for the community when companies rip the hell out of the local hillsides. In my constituency, brand new green belt land is affected.
It is time for us to look seriously at the problem. We try to protect the villages of Kent because individuals might suffer in the public interest when a valuable link is placed at the end of the Channel tunnel. I have no objection to such protection, but for many years, those of us who represent mining areas have had the short end of the stick. Nobody has thought through the fact that many people will suffer.
The people who work in the industry have tended to say, "If we work in it, we have to suffer by it." However, that attitude has long since gone. It is time to look at the recommendations of the Waddilove committee. The Country Landowners Association was part of the united
Column 176industry working party which consisted of the National Farmers' Union, the Building Societies Association, the Confederation of British Industry, the Law Society, the British Property Federation and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. It met my right hon. Friend's predecessor to put pressure for action on the Waddilove committee which reported in 1984. The Government did not say anything until 1987--by anyone's standards that was a hell of a long time to consider the issue.
Those organisations pressed for various sensible actions in terms of legislative reforms, independent arbitration and standards of repair. When repairs are done, there are constant disagreements about their standard. The organisations pressed the committee about the contractors used. Sometimes, the Coal Board, through no fault of its own, might be slow in appointing a contractor. There is no reason why, with proper safeguards, the people affected should not appoint their own contractors to do the work under proper supervision. The onus of proof should be on the coal board to show that the damage is not caused by subsidence, rather than on the individual to prove that it was subsidence damage. A great deal could be done for administrative improvements in terms of claims, limitations of claims and notification of areas of work.
I do not want my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to imagine that this is a party political matter. It is not. Those of us who represent, and have represented for some time, mining areas, feel that the time is right to look at compensation for those affected. My simple view is that there are many cases in which the public interest overrides the individual's interest. That is the case with roads and many other things. However, it is then right that the public interest should thoroughly compensate those private individuals who lose something--often quite dramatically--for the sake of the general interest. That applies not just to mining subsidence, but to other issues.
If my right hon. Friend is not prepared to accept new clause 1, it would be helpful if he would give a clear indication of what he is prepared to do, through legislation, regulation or whatever, to bring about the Waddilove committee's sensible recommendations and respond to the promises made by his predecessor when he met the committee.
Mr. Lofthouse : I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) agrees that mining subsidence affects areas other than those that he specifically mentioned, in Nottinghamshire. I assure him and the House that the problem exists also in west and south Yorkshire. It certainly does in my area. Like the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), I gave evidence to the Waddilove committee, both written and oral. Like him, I and many others believe that its recommendations would prompt a greater response than we have seen to date. The situation in Nottingham has only been made worse by delay.
I recall going to Nottingham with members of the Select Committee to take evidence of the problems there, which had been highlighted by Ian MacGregor's evidence to the Select Committee in 1986, when he emphasised the colossal volume of funds contained in British Coal's estimates and which has been paid out in Nottingham. That set the alarm bells ringing.
Column 177There is no doubt that, through neglect, inefficiency and corruption on the part of certain British Coal officers-- and people were found guilty of corruption and sent to prison--the policy in force at that time began to grind to a standstill and British Coal started tidying up its act. No one could grumble at that, because those responsible for corruption paid the right penalty. However, that was of little comfort to people in Nottinghamshire and in west and south Yorkshire who were treated differently from the way in which they had been hitherto.
If the Secretary of State presents the new Bill of which mention was made earlier by the hon. Member for Broxtowe, I hope that he will take into account the fact that the average individual in a mining community desperately needs independent professional advice before reaching any settlement with British Coal. In the past, many people accepted settlements that were far from adequate because of their lack of professional knowledge. I hope that any such Bill would provide for the cost of such professional advice to be met by British Coal.
I do not take away from anything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, but one needs to live in a mining community to appreciate the problems that it faces. The Flowers commission report of 1981 acknowledged that there is little peace to be had in mining communities. People living in them dare not go to sleep at night because of the cracks and creaking that they hear. In my own area, housing estates have been demolished, and houses in the immediate vicinity have lost a tremendous amount of their value overnight. In many cases, the recompense offered has been far from adequate.
Right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House are always remarking that the Government take notice of any Select Committee report, but I have yet to be convinced that that is so. The report of the 1987 Select Committee recommended that the Government should respond speedily to Waddilove's recommendations. It commented : "Any system of compensation which is developed from the Waddilove Report should be so framed as to apply equally to BC and any present or future competitors".
I hope that any future Bill will offer protection in the event that--God forbid--British Coal is ever privatised. The Select Committee also said :
"We regret the delay and we hope that the promised publication of the White Paper on Waddilove will be earlier rather than later in the current Session."
That was in 1986-87, but there has still been little response. I hope that the Secretary of State, although he has not long been in his present job, will rapidly provide a Bill to protect people who have suffered from the terrible conditions in the mining communities for too long.
Dr. Mike Woodcock (Ellesmere Port and Neston) : The major part of the Bill is concerned with grants to British Coal. While they are necessary to enable the restructuring of British Coal, I remind the House that that level of Government support was not available to the 7,000 constituents of mine, or to many thousands of other hon. Members' constituents, who were made redundant when their industries had to face the fundamental challenges of the market place. The Government have been generous to British Coal but, as many hon. Members have said, it is disappointing that, while the Bill gives further massive grants and
Column 178subsidies to British Coal, it does nothing to relieve the plight of the victims of coal-mining subsidence. A great deal of injustice is felt.
Many hon. Members--including my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), who unfortunately cannot take part in the debte--have campaigned long and hard for reform. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) said, a united industry working party has been formed, with representatives of the Confederation of British Industry, the Country Landowners' Association, the Law Society, the British Property Federation, the Building Societies Association, insurance companies, the National Farmers Union and other groups, all of which are concerned to ensure that the Government take action on coal-mining subsidence.
I took representatives of those bodies to see the former Minister, and they sought to persuade him to take action. They are bitterly disappointed that, to date, no action has been taken. The Minister was extremely polite and listened sympathetically, but regrettably he did not act. The case is overwhelming. With the present rules, vast amounts of subsidence damage are neither compensated for nor repaired. British Coal regularly denies liability for damage that it knows it has caused, by relying on the infamous statute of limitations. In effect, it is saying, "We know that your property has been damaged and that we have caused the damage. We know that Parliament has passed laws requiring us to repair the damage or to compensate you, but we think that we can use the statute of limitations to get out of our responsibilities. We are going to do that and leave you to repair the damage that we have caused." Why does British Coal refuse independent adjudication on the extent of damage, on whether damage has been caused by subsidence, on delay, on consequential losses and on whether repair or compensation is appropriate? Why is British Coal continually allowed to act as offender, judge and jury? The reason is simple : because the Government--in spite of the recommendations of the Waddilove committee- -continue to allow it to do just that.
The Government are proposing further massive handouts to British Coal, so it is only fair that those handouts are linked to a fairer deal for the victims of British coal-mining, as was recommended by the Waddilove committee in 1983. The Government must acknowledge that they have had six years to act, but they are still saying that the time is not right. I cannot accept that, while the Government can find the time and money to deal with the restructuring of British Coal, they cannot find the much smaller amount that is necessary to deal with this continuing problem. I fervently hope that the Secretary of State will tell the House that action will be taken quickly.
Mr. Ashton : If there had been an earthquake in Britain similar to the one in San Francisco last year, or if the San Andreas fault disaster had happened in Nottinghamshire, and overnight 33,000 houses had suffered enormous damage and become unsafe and schools, hospitals and factories had been affected, there would have been uproar. There would have been an outcry and television stations would have set up fund-raising collections. The Government would have rushed in immediately with aid, and it would have been classed as a national disaster.
Column 179However, because subsidence has occurred gradually over the years, and has been assimilated at local level, the problem has been swept under the carpet.
What happened after the gale in the south of England in October 1987? In one night, millions of trees were felled, damaging cars and houses. The insurance companies paid out, and the Government rushed in emergency aid. A tremendous amount of help was given to people in the home counties at that time because many prominent Tory voters and Conservative Members lived there. We should compare that reaction to the reaction to subsidence in coal-mining areas, where nothing has been done.
Barlow Clowes is another example. Again, the affluent middle class were affected--people who know how to lobby Members of Parliament, write letters, form pressure groups and employ solicitors. They acted as a group and they got compensation.
The farmers got compensation when eggs were affected by salmonella. That was classed as a national disaster and the cash was found immediately, and action was taken to keep them sweet.
The pre-1973 war widows were another anomaly, but hon. Members got to their feet. There was a tremendous backlash and the money was found.
If there is an overnight disaster, it seems that the cash can be found. In every Budget there is a 2 per cent. contingency fund. If expenditure in the Budget is £160 billion or £170 billion, 2 per cent. of that is allowed for the contingency fund, and if there is any sort of emergency, the Chancellor says that it is covered by the contingency fund. However, that 2 per cent. is never used for things such as subsidence. Action is continually postponed.
I have no doubt that the cash will be found for the Channel tunnel. When British Rail is told that it has to put the track to Dover underground, to go under the vale of Kent, because otherwise it will upset lots of Tory voters, the money will be found.
Coal-mining areas suffer from the blight of subsidence, and the Government have not even a register. The Department of Energy does not know how many houses are affected by the problem, or how much it will cost to restore them. It has no information.
The problem has been left to the local district councils. The council in Mansfield set up a seminar, and people came from Ashfield, Bolsover, north- east Derbyshire and Newark, which are all areas where people have suffered chronically from subsidence. At the seminar they decided that, as nobody else would help them they had better help themselves and find out the information. Professor P. L. Clarke, a highly qualified professor from Nottingham university, was paid to send out a simple questionnaire to every household, as the electoral register forms are sent out.
As hon. Members know, a phenomenal amount of bumph comes through our doors and it is difficult to get people to fill in forms. It probably leads to a lower response to questionnaires than one would expect, yet 33,000 households in those half dozen district council areas said that they had suffered from the effects of subsidence caused by British Coal.
The Government have encouraged people to become owner-occupiers, and I do not deplore that. Sometimes, it seems that they are going the long way round, because of
Column 180the high interest rates, but surely it is Government policy to encourage people to buy houses. What happens then? They allow a massive accident blight to spread across a neighbourhood and they offer no promises about compensation.
Thousands of people have followed Government advice and bought their council houses, and then they have suffered from subsidence. They put in a claim to British Coal, but it says that it is sorry, but will not pay compensation because it paid it to the council 10 or 15 years ago. The council says that it received the compensation and sold the affected house at a cheaper price.
People followed the Prime Minister's advice and bought their houses, and now they are lumbered with perhaps a £10,000 mortgage on a house that they cannot sell because it is worthless, and no good to anybody. Some people may say that they should not have followed Government advice. What protection do the Government offer those unfortunate people, who were encouraged to buy council houses and found that they had bought a pup? The response from the Department of Energy has been nil--it has promised to consider the matter. One could argue that subsidence is an act of God. For example, Worksop and Warsop, in my constituency, both have coal mines underneath them. Worksop is hardly touched by subsidence because it is built on sand, but Warsop, which is seven miles away, is built on rock and there is a great deal of subsidence there. It is mere chance. People do not have a choice about where they live. 4.45 pm
Another problem is trying to attract new industry to the area. Pits are closing, and they have land that would be ideal for industrial development. Often, the land is at the foot of a slag heap, which has been grassed over and the surrounding environment may not be very nice, but many industries are environmentally unattractive, and they could go to such places. However, if one mentions subsidence, they run a mile. Who would invest £2 million in a new factory when, if one walks down the street, one sees cracks in the sides of houses, leaning chimneys and doors that do not shut, and one sees that people are continually protesting and demanding action, but getting nothing done?
The areas affected by subsidence often have high unemployment of between 9 and 15 per cent.--in my constituency, unemployment is 17 per cent. There are good men, who are willing to work shifts and to do physically unattractive hard work. They would be happy to do almost any job. They are used to noise, dirt and heavy lorries. But industry will not come in to the area because no one will build a factory on a site if the building will have cracks in the walls within six months, and the machinery inside will not work.
Many parts of my constituency have suffered for more than a century. One could make a D. H. Lawrence film in Warsop--"Sons and Lovers", perhaps-- because the terraced houses are still there. Most of my constituency is beautiful, but in Warsop vale, less than 10 yards away from the bedrooms where people sleep, coal trains chunter past every 20 minutes. People work shifts. There is always the noise of the klaxon horns from the pits, heavy lorries, hooters and safety warnings. Those people have suffered from noise all their lives.