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Column 181What happens when the pits close? People think, "Thank God. We might get a bit of peace." But the pavements are broken, the water that comes down off the slag heaps does not run away properly in the gutters and the street lighting is bad. The environment is lousy. There are playing fields with dips and holes among the kids' swings. The price of houses there is so low that it is a miracle that people buy and sell them. They like living in the area because they grew up there and they are happy.
Subsidence is a massive problem that nobody seems to want to sort out.
Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) : Relatively modern housing can be affected by subsidence. The semi-detached house in which I live tilts so much that the drainpipe at one corner is useless, as the water runs in the opposition direction. A new drainpipe will now have to be built at the other end.
Mr. Ashton : My hon. Friend is right. I have been asked to visit houses where newly installed central heating does not work because the pump will not drive the hot water round ; the owners, meanwhile, are still saddled with the debt that they incurred in installing the system.
Can anyone imagine the anger and frustration experienced by women who find that after they have decorated the house, the wall cracks, the wallpaper will not stick or the fitted carpet suddenly becomes an inch too short because a gap has appeared in the wall? It can be dangerous : people sit looking at their walls and asking themselves whether the damn things are going to fall in on them. Often they cannot get the council to condemn their house and rehouse them, because almost all the houses have been sold off and the council has very few left to let. It has to keep one or two, but it knows that, once it rehouses one victim of subsidence, 500 more will want to be rehoused.
Meanwhile, the insurance companies are engaging in one of the biggest rip- offs that we have seen for some years. When people follow the Government's advice and apply for a mortgage so that they can become owner-occupiers, the Halifax and the other building societies say, "Yes, we will lend you £10,000, but you must pay insurance." So they pay the insurance--and then a crack appears and the garden wall falls down.
Getting insurance companies to pay out for subsidence is a terrible job, and I think that it is time that some of those people went to see the insurance ombudsman, as I have advised them to do. Alternatively, they could all band together, as the Barlow Clowes victims did, and announce that they are going to bang the insurance companies and building societies into court. The building societies compel them to pay insurance year in, year out, but as soon as there is a problem, the insurance companies do not want to know--or else point to the small print that says that occupiers must pay 10 times the cost of the annual insurance on the house. In other words, if the annual insurance is £300, they must put up the first £3,000. People in such circumstances obtain no help from the building societies, which back the insurance companies, so they ask their Members of Parliament to take up their case. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) has a magnificent record in this regard, and I heartily congratulate him on his ceaseless campaign. He and his local council have managed to persuade the television
Column 182companies to broadcast programmes about the problem, and in the two years for which my hon. Friend has been in the House it has received more attention than ever before.
One of the difficulties, however, is the need for secrecy. It is in the interests of tenants to keep such problems quiet in case they decide to sell their house. They come to our surgeries and say, "I am sorry, Mr. Ashton"--or Mr. Meale, as the case may be--"but you must not tell anyone about the problem. You will not put it in the newspaper, will you? If it gets around that XYZ road has a problem, no one living in that road will ever sell a house again." So they fill the walls with Polyfilla or apply Anaglypta. Such conspiracies of silence will do nothing to solve the problem. When we mention it, people say that they have heard nothing about it before, because newspapers and television do not shout about it as they have done about Barlow Clowes, foot-and-mouth disease or the Channel tunnel.
The problem affects about 30,000 houses within a 10 or 15-mile radius of my constituency. A succession of Ministers have said that they sympathise and intend to act--that they will produce another report. British Coal has shed tears and offered tea and sympathy. Nothing is ever done, however. The insurance companies take no action, no cash is ever found and the Government simply hope that the problem can be swept under the carpet and will eventually go away. But we do not intend to let it go away : we shall continue to raise it whenever the opportunity arises until we see some action.
Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) for his kind comments about our activities in the north Nottinghamshire area, but I must add that it has been a joint effort, involving not only him and me but my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes)--as well as the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Woodcock).
The House should accept the new clause. The problem of subsidence is nothing short of a national scandal. Home owners, not only in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire but in other coalfield areas such as Yorkshire, Scotland, the north-east and Wales, face tremendous difficulties. I pay tribute to the Channel 4 "Dispatches" documentary, entitled "In the Coalhole", screened just before Christmas, which discussed those difficulties in detail.
I also commend the local press, especially in Nottinghamshire--the Evening Post (Nottingham) the CHAD in Mansfield, the Nottingham Recorder and the Nottingham Observer --which have not ceased to publicise the issue. Over the past two or three years, the BBC and Yorkshire and Central Television have also featured it several times. Only now, largely because of the Channel 4 programme, is it being seen for what it is--a national scandal.
I met the Minister privately yesterday, along with another hon. Member, to discuss the matter, but it is difficult for hon. Members on either side of the House to realise the extent of the suffering involved. Not only people's homes but the security of their lives is being put at risk. Only those who represent coal-mining areas know exactly what is involved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) said that the survey carried out by local
Column 183authorities in north Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire produced 33,000 responses. In fact, there were 54,000, 33,500 of which referred to damaged properties. Some of our constituents have experienced severe health problems owing to stress, and many have had to consult their doctors. In my constituency, a school, a hospital and many other public buildings have had to close.
As "Dispatches" pointed out, Trent Water has estimated that it is owed approximately £25 million for the repair of damage to properties in Nottinghamshire, although it has not been keen to publicise the fact, or to take part in a seminar : As its members explained when they visited London to meet the Minister, they were preparing for privatisation, and--as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw observed--who would buy shares in a public industry that faced a £25 million repair bill? Moreover, Trent Water cannot get the money back from British Coal.
The survey to which I referred has been discussed many times with Ministers and has been debated in the House. It referred to 33,000 damaged homes, roads and service supplies such as water, gas and electricity. It made it clear that in all the areas surveyed there was major concern and that havoc was being caused to the coalfield communities.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston spoke of the way in which British Coal was being allowed to act as offender, judge and jury. British Coal is in fact getting away with blue murder against the people in the coalfield communities. It hides behind the six-year rule, which many in the legal profession say is of extremely doubtful merit but which is upheld because of lack of action by the Government. British Coal acts as judge and jury by acting as banker, as it were--openly blackmailing people who are suffering from subsidence problems, people who cannot go to courts or go through the Lands Tribunal.
"Blackmail" may seem a strong word to use, but evidence has been produced by hon. Members on both sides of the House describing how letters have been sent by British Coal to home owners saying, in effect, "Unless you accept this minimal sum, we shall put your case to the bottom of the pile and take it through the legal processes, and that will take years. If you risk going through the Lands Tribunal or some other means, you will risk losing everything, including your home and savings."
Alternatively, British Coal had demonstrated its determination to cut to the lowest sum possible the amount expended to fulfil its responsibilities in respect of coal-mining subsidence damage. By using the blackmailing technique of "take it or leave it" with home owners and others, British Coal states that only certain types of repair will be undertaken. Having said that, it employs the cheapest possible builders, who repair the properties not properly but cosmetically. They Polyfilla over the cracks and cover with the cheapest possible paint or other rendering.
My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said he knew of people who had been out of their homes for three or four months while repairs were done. I have constituents who were out of their homes for more than two years. Twelve months is normal for people to have to leave their homes in my constituency while subsidence work is done.
Column 184Then there is the plight of those who do not leave their homes while the work is done but who have to stay because of a lack of properties in which to house them, such is the scale of the subsidence problem in my area. As I say, British Coal employs the cheapest builders who, when faced with, say, major cracks across a living room wall, do not take down the wall and rebuild it--replastering and rendering as necessary--but cut out a portion where the crack exists, cover the furniture with cloths and make the families remain in their homes while the repairs are carried out. That takes not a day or two but weeks and sometimes months. Hon. Members have spoken in previous debates about how cheaply British Coal gets the work done. There have been cases of people who have produced the wallpaper that was on a wall before it was repaired and have been told by British Coal that it was not prepared to pay, say £3 per roll--the current price of the wallpaper--but only the original price of 99p per roll. What a disgraceful state f affairs. Builders in my area have gone so far as to tell British Coal that, because of the prices it is willing to pay, they are not interested in taking on the work. Some builders have told me honestly that, but for the slack winter period when they have little work on hand, they would not even bother to do British Coal work because the contracts that British Coal awards are not worth having.
The amendment refers to financing the repairs of coal-mining subsidence damage. There seems to be a difference of opinion about how such work should be financed. On a previous occasion, I asked the present Minister of Housing and Planning, when he was at the Department of Energy, how much money was available for subsidence work. As we know, money is collected on every tonne of coal produced for work of this kind. Indeed, the Government continue to claim that that charge has led to coal mine closures, so expensive is the cost of subsidence repairs.
Mr. Illsley : I can give my hon. Friend an example of a colliery that closed because of subsidence problems. I refer to Redbrook colliery in Barnsley. When the NCB costed the amount that it would have to pay in subsidence claims compared with the profit that would be gained by mining the coal in that pit, it decided to close the colliery.
Mr. Meale : I thank my hon. Friend for giving that example. Some time ago, Mansfield colliery in my constituency was closed. I had been told for at least a year prior to its closure that it would be shut, not because of subsidence but because although it was a pit with reserves, the NCB had decided not to expand production and dig into those reserves.
When the closure announcement finally came, in a press release, British Coal and another organisation used the opportunity to accuse me of closing the pit because I had been busy fighting for the rights of coal subsidence claimants. I faced a stupid and untrue situation. I checked the files in my office and discovered that of 32 cases for whom I had made applications to British Coal's estates department--for repairs and proper compensation for the properties concerned in the area of the pit that was closed--not one had been settled by British Coal. In other words, in many cases the Government are using the excuse of coal-mining subsidence costs as a major reason for closing pits.
Column 185When at the Department of Energy, the present Minister for Housing and Planning said that, in the accounts, £260 million had been set aside for the repair of damage caused by coal-mining subsidence. I have since asked questions, in the House and elsewhere, to discover whether that money is in a separate account and, if so, why it cannot be used for subsidence repair work. I have been told by British Coal, in letters to me and through the media, that no such fund exists because such money has been set against the industry's losses and deficits each year and has been written off.
I suggest that the House is being misled. Considering that an amount is attached to every tonne of coal that is produced, and that that money is put into a fund for the payment of subsidence damage repair costs, it cannot be written off to pay for the industry's debts. After all, those sums must, or should, have been put into a bank account to be drawn on at a future date for subsidence repairs. Indeed, if British Coal has not been doing that, it has not been carrying out its responsibilities. There should have been at least £260 million in the fund at the time when the Minister made his statement, and by now, having gathered interest, the total should be considerably higher.
Let me say a few words about the future as the present Government see it. One must give them credit for their honesty as they have never shied away from their immediate plans and their absolute determination to privatise the coal industry. I am disappointed with the Bill and with the fact that so far the Government have not accepted our amendments. Unless they sort out the problem of coal-mining subsidence damage, all the residents, public services and business in coalfield communities throughout Britain will be left in severe difficulty. If those people do not have much of a chance of getting damages paid now, how on earth will they get them when a private employer takes over the responsibility for those coal mines? It will be extremely difficult to sell those industries, not simply because people will be unwilling to invest in them--if the Government are that determined, they will pass laws exempting them--but because the problem of coal-mining subsidence damage needs to be sorted out. I warn the Minister, as I warned his predecessor, that if any attempt is made to privatise the industry without having sorted out this business, according to that survey, there are 13,500 people with damaged homes in my constituency--that is just in the private sector ; there are hundreds more in the public sector--who will band together and take the case to Europe. The Minister knows that, if we go to Europe for a ruling about people's rights to repair their homes which have been damaged by a public industry, without a shadow of a doubt the ruling will be in our favour.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : Does my hon. Friend agree that, if such a case went to Europe before the flotation of the electricity industry, the Commission might take a rather dim view of that progress being made?
I spoke to the Minister yesterday and asked him for an assurance that he will come to the Nottinghamshire coalfield area and see for himself the level of damage. I am pleased that he was willing to do that and assure me that he would not do what his predecessors had done and come
Column 186to Nottinghamshire only to talk to British Coal. Given that the report states that there are 33,500 damaged homes, I do not want the Minister simply to spend time talking to the people who have caused the problems and who are denying their responsibility for repairing people's homes. I want him to spend time in the Nottinghamshire coalfield area meeting the people who have to live with it day in and day out and run their businesses there.
Mr. Lofthouse : Is my hon. Friend aware that, certainly in my constituency, some council tenants' applications to buy their homes under the right to buy have been outstanding for three years because the council has been unable to reach an agreement on subsidence damage? Some people have become so desperate to purchase their property that they have signed an agreement to buy it at its present value, hoping that they will get reasonable compensation from British Coal, but so far they have been unable to achieve that.
I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to come to
Nottinghamshire and to meet people running businesses, home owners, property owners and people providing public services. I wonder whether he can do that before the Select Committee on Energy, to which I pay tribute, returns to Nottinghamshire this spring. The work it carried out in the early 1980s has not been fulfilled by British Coal or by the Government.
I remind the House about the lack of action that the Government have taken to sort out coal-mining subsidence damage. The Waddilove inquiry was commissioned in 1983, completed in 1984 and published in 1987 after severe pressure from Members of Parliament. The Government responded in 1988 ; now we are heading into 1990, and the Government are missing yet another opportunity to alleviate the problems. Action is needed. We need a legal centre for claimants who cannot afford to use the legal system which hinders their attempts to get justice. We need a low-cost independent arbitration system to get over problems caused because British Coal is judge and jury, and we need mandatory protection for claimants. Most of all, we need guarantees that the Government will produce a solution to help our people get back to a normal life.
Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) : I wish to pay tribute to all the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) has done to draw attention to the huge problem of mining subsidence, which is not just a matter for Nottinghamshire, although we have heard an awful lot about Nottinghamshire today. It also occurs in north Staffordshire and in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent, North. In his usual pertinent way, my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield made it clear that mining subsidence damage will be a real problem for the Government in the run up to privatisation. I do not argue that the industry should be privatised. I warn the Government that every coal mining community throughout the country will band together to draw attention to coal mining subsidence.
One of the first things I did as a newly elected Member of Parliament was to go to the Secretary of State for the
Column 187Environment, who is now the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and take up Stoke-on-Trent city council's case for inner-city status for Stoke-on-Trent because the extent of subsidence and the way in which it undermines the city meant that any new building would cost half as much again as it would cost anywhere else in the country. Without extra support from the Government and from the Department of the Environment, there was no way in which we could get the new buildings, new jobs and new opportunities for the city of Stoke-on- Trent. I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State will take on board the clear need to liaise closely with their colleagues at the Department of the Environment because it is an environmental matter as well as one for the Department of Energy. Subsidence is a scandal in Stoke-on- Trent and it has been a national scandal for more than 20 years. In her maiden speech, my predecessor before one, Harriet Slater, spoke about the need for the Government to do something about subsidence and to sort out the problems faced by the local city council and Staffordshire county council. Those problems have not been resolved and I certainly join my hon. Friends in telling the Government that something will have to be done.
My hon. Friends have described the extreme hardship faced by individuals who are living in homes which have been damaged by subsidence. Many people in Stoke-on-Trent, North have made claims but many more were not even aware that they had the right to do so. The way in which British Coal has done everything possible to prevent people from making claims for subsidence on their properties is absolutely out of order. It is not the easiest thing in the world for someone who is not aware of his legal rights to take on British Coal and demand proper compensation for the cracks and for the fact that his house is no longer saleable.
One of the really difficult things that I have had to deal with is what to say to people when, time and time again, British Coal tells them that they will have to make do with £100 which the contractors will spend on repairs to their homes. There is no way that an independent assessment can be made of the damage. Something must be done about subsidence. One point that must be taken up is British Coal's refusal to pay attention to the serious hardship and stress that people are suffering.
Another environmental problem is methane gas from old refuse tips. Yesterday we had an indication that the Secretary of State is prepared to consider retrospectively the need to make good damage from such tips. If the Government can deal retrospectively with that, they can do something about all the claims for subsidence damage. The Government have told us that they are concerned about the environment and that they will make the whole country clean so that there will not be a huge environmental problem. Is that a cautionary approach? Of course not. Why is no assessment being made of the scale of the problem in individual properties? Why is the cost of subsidence not considered as part of the entire cost of coal mining? Only recently the Government have recognised that something must be done about the decommissioning of nuclear power stations. The principle is the same. Any coal-mining operation that produces subsidence must take
Column 188account of that subsidence and put right the damage or must prevent it in the first place. The cost should be part of the overall cost of coal mining.
It is for those reasons that I ask the Minister to accept new clause 1. It is not just the 33,500 people in Mansfield whose homes have suffered from subsidence but all the other affected people in all coal-mining areas who want something done. Organisations such as the Coalfield Communities Campaign will make certain that there will be full compensation for people who need it, especially before privatisation. My hon. Friends and I are committed to working towards that.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood) : I welcome the opportunity to participate in a debate on one of my favourite constituency subjects, the coal industry. Although I could not be here for the whole debate, I think that I would have been familiar with many of the speeches. There is common ground on both sides of the House. The hon. Member for Mansfield, (Mr. Meale), my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and I, among others, participated in the Channel 4 programme which has been mentioned. I thought that it was a fair programme which looked objectively at the plight of people affected by coal-mining subsidence. I dare say that British Coal may take a contrary view, but it was given an opportunity to make its position plain, and I am not sure that it used the programme to its best advantage.
The hon. Member for Mansfield said that one injustice is that British Coal is perceived as judge and jury in its own cause. That is a major criticism. It shows insensitivity towards people for whom coal-mining subsidence can be a long drawn out and bitter experience.
One individual, David Linford, not my constituent but a constituent of my late colleague in Mid-Staffordshire, runs an important building company in my constituency. He had to wait 13 years for recognition by British Coal that subsidence had caused problems with his brand new house, which he had built after getting advice from British Coal about where faults were. Such insensitivity does no credit to those responsible for managing the affairs of British Coal.
To break the bipartisan camaraderie on the issue, I declare again a view that I have put many times : that this is the inevitable result of nationalisation. I accept that Labour Members will take a contrary view, but I invite them at least to consider the thought that if the industry were in the private sector, it could not afford to ride roughshod over the will of people in whose community it operates.
Mr. Howarth : The hon. Lady anticipates a matter for a future Parliament. I have always declared my position, that I am in favour of the privatisation of coal because I believe it would greatly benefit the people who work in the industry, its customers, and those, like many of my constituents, who work and live in coalfield areas. I believe that a privatised industry would be forced to be much more concerned about how it treated the community. If it were not, the community would deny it the right to work the coal.
Column 189British Coal will have to be much more sympathetic because gone are the days when it could with impunity rape the countryside of its mineral content. It will need the support of the community in which it works. Coal will continue to be an important fuel. The nation expects of British Coal that it will discharge its duty responsibly. In the past, the industry could rely on the fact that, as people whose homes were affected by subsidence were the very people who were employed in the industry, they were unlikely to protest too much because they might be in danger of losing their jobs. Today, with a much more slimline industry, the position is different. Many who are affected by mining subsidence are not employed in the industry, but are its victims. They do not feel beholden in the same way as I suspect in years gone by those employed in the industry did. British Coal no longer dominates the community. I say with as much force as I can muster that I hope the people responsible for running British Coal will take a much more sympathetic and careful view of the problems of subsidence that have been expressed by hon. Members on all sides.
I have noted the new clause in the name of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and his hon. Friends as far as it relates to coal- mining subsidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), who over the past two years or more served as Under-Secretary of State for Energy with great distinction, was cognisant of the difficulties mentioned by hon. Members. I know that he took the problem seriously, which is why some of the recommendations of the Waddilove committee that do not need statutory permission have been implemented. However, some of its recommendations will need statutory approval, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry)--whom I congratulate on his elevation to the post of Under-Secretary of State for Energy, in which I wish him a long and successful career--will take on board the cross-party view that it would be more sensible to introduce comprehensive proposals later rather than to tack them on to the Bill.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : My hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) spoke eloquently of specific cases in their constituencies. However, people directly affected by coal-mining subsidence can more eloquently describe the problems that they face.
A constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield appeared on the Channel 4 series "Dispatches" in a programme entitled "In the Coalhole". About five minutes of that programme were devoted to her speaking forcefully about mining subsidence during a visit to one of my hon. Friend's advice centres. The producer told me that she spoke for about 25 or 30 minutes about the difficulties that she faced. Hon. Members' constituents have experienced vast problems with subsidence for ages and have records, notes and photographs of their experiences. I wish that there were a system to resolve their problems, to help them get their homes repaired and to help them to overcome the traumas that they have experienced.
I have a problem of subsidence resulting from past coal mining in my constituency at Hartington road in Staveley. At one time, I was rather reluctant to discuss the problem,
Column 190but people in the area began to publicise it themselves. There is likely to be similar problems in the future, because of mining development at Markham pit, which is presently taking place in south Staveley in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). In time, the problem will move to north Staveley, which is in my constituency.
Inkersall green special school in south Staveley has been seriously affected by subsidence. It was known that there was to be mining development underneath it, so precautions were taken. A large ditch was built around the school so that it would fall slightly and settle, minimising the problem of mining subsidence. When mining halfway under the school, they hit a fault--I do not know whose fault it was that that was not foreseen--and could not continue. That broke the back of the school. It is a beautiful school and some of its facilities have been paid for by the local community, but anyone walking inside it feels seasick.
The problem is what to do about it, what will happen to special education in the area, given local government's problems with resources, and whether it will receive full help from British Coal for repairs. Hon. Members have spoken of the difficulties of dealing with British Coal and its agents, of their constituents receiving inadequate help and of them often having to accept a raw deal. Earlier, the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) said that the clause should not be given a Second Reading because a later Bill will deal with the problem of subsidence. I shall argue that it should be given a Second Reading now, unless I can be convinced otherwise by the Minister.
The Bill is almost a paving measure for the privatisation of the coal industry. Some of the cash arrangements in the Bill may be acceptable to Labour Members, but their purpose is to prepare the industry for privatisation. In those circumstances, people are worried about whether funds will be made available to cover outstanding claims. New clause 1(3) is essential to ensure that adequate funds will be available. If the industry is privatised--that will not happen, because after the next election there will be a different Government--the problem of ensuring that funds are available and used will remain. The other sign that this is a paving Bill are the provisions that deal with small mine development.
A further reason for giving the clause a Second Reading is that more pits will close if the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill is enacted. Unless the other place passes an amendment stopping coal imports through the Humber ports--if that happened, the promoters of the Bill would withdraw it --the coal industry will be further damaged. British Coal will be forced to concentrate on a few super-pits and to develop opencast coal mining on a large scale. In those circumstances, if adequate funding is not made available to cover subsidence at coal mines that have closed, people will be in a bad position. A further reason given for not giving the clause a Second Reading is the promise of a Bill to deal with coal mining subsidence. I wrote to the Minister on 5 December, made one or two suggestions about the Bill and mentioned the need for coal-mining subsidence legislation. I received a reply, and I have since received a second version, which is circulating among other hon. Members. The letter states that, "at the earliest practical opportunity",
Column 191there will be some appropriate legislation, but we need to test what is meant by that.
As has already been said, there have been six years in which measures could have been brought before the House. This is the umpteenth debate on coal- mining subsidence. Many previous debates were initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). When he was lucky in the ballot for motions that he could bring before the House, he ensured that we could discuss this matter. Many of the points about what is required in legislation have been hammered out in the House and in meetings with the Department of Energy.
The Minister's letter says :
"With regard to your concern about coal mining subsidence, you will, I am sure, recognise the inherent complexity of the subject". The subject is complex and there are conflicting interests involved, but that cannot be a reason for delaying such a measure. The complexities have been discussed at considerable length. The problems are well understood by Opposition Members and should be well understood by the Department of Energy. The measure must be brought forward.
The letter continues :
"and consequently, that subsidence requires its own Bill in its own timetable. I believe it would be wrong to rush a subsidence measure through the House tacked on the short, primarily financial, Coal Industry Bill, which requires early enactment. The government is therefore committed to introducing a Bill dealing comprehensively with subsidence issues at the earliest practical opportunity." The letter later deals with my points about the need for independent arbitration, the need for British Coal to have a primary duty to correct the problems, its legal responsibility and various other items. That shows that there is a great deal of sympathy within the Department of Energy with certain points that the Opposition have put forward.
However, the letter implies that if we wait, everything will be okay. Many of us are sick of waiting. We have seen the problems of our constituents. Does
"at the earliest practical opportunity"
mean this Session, despite the fact that such a measure was not contained in the Queen's Speech ; or does it mean that we are expected to sit back and to wait for such a measure to be contained in another Queen's Speech, if the Department of Energy bids for sufficient resources and funds to enable it to carry out such legislation?
Opposition Members believe that it is not good enough for the Government to intend to introduce legislation in the next Session. That would not deal with our constituents' problems and the future difficulties that many of them face. I hope that the Minister will explain why he thinks that new clause 1 is inappropriate and, if so, what other measures would be appropriate. When will such measures be introduced? They are now very urgent.
Mr. Illsley : I want to speak briefly on points that are similar to those made by my hon. Friends. It is nice to hear Conservative Members welcoming public money being given to the coal industry. Usually, when we ask for further funds to be given to the coal industry, we meet a barrage of hostility from Conservative Members. It is important that subsidence is dealt with in the Coal Industry Bill. New clause 1 deals with British Coal's historical debts. It is important that those debts are sorted
Column 192out before the end of the financial year. As many of the subsidence claims are historical debts for British Coal, money should be voted now to help the industry to meet its liabilities. Some hon. Members have heard from the chairman of British Coal the amount of money that British Coal requires for concessionary coal liabilities and claims for industrial deafness.
Subsidence damage claims should be included in the Bill. The money required for subsidence claims has an effect on British Coal's investment decisions about collieries. Such considerations have had tremendous importance in the past. I have spent hours in meetings with British Coal--or the National Coal Board, as it was--which was trying to decide which coal seam or coal face could be mined in view of the amount that the board might face in subsidence claims if that coal were taken.
Sometimes, decisions were taken to close seams or collieries because British Coal could not afford the amount of subsidence liability that it would have faced had it continued to maintain that face or seam. Subsidence has an important effect. Collieries and jobs may be cut because the board has insufficient money to finance the subsidence claims that have accumulated over the past few years. The Government must help with that liability. They must consider new clause 1 and ensure that British Coal has sufficient money to cover its liabilities on subsidence.
Subsidence claims are endemic to mining areas. My hon. Friends have talked about their constituents with subsidence claims. A number of my constituents--including myself--have such problems. My present and previous houses suffered from subsidence so I am well aware of the delays in dealing with claims. One street in my constituency--Melvinia crescent--had to be demolished. The owners are waiting for their properties to be rebuilt by British Coal. However, I want to put on record my appreciation of British Coal's Allerton Bywater estates department, which has been helpful in my dealings with subsidence damage claims.
However, claims put a considerable strain on my constituents who are faced with the decision of whether to remain in a property that has been damaged by subsidence and which may have been tilted, cracked or broken. Buying a home is usually a person's major financial investment. It is heartrending to have to decide whether a home should be demolished, repaired or rebuilt, especially if the property is of high value or if someone has personal reasons for wanting to remain in it.
Subsidence also affects local authority housing. Sometimes, local authorities which are cash-squeezed by the Minister for Housing and Planning--the former Under-Secretary of State for Energy--cannot afford to spend money on housing repairs, although that money is owed to them by British Coal. Sometimes, tenants have to remain in properties that have been damaged by subsidence because local authorities cannot provide the money quickly enough for repairs to be carried out as they are still waiting for British Coal to make payments for subsidence damage claims.
There is also damage to local authority roads and to road building programmes. Roads in my constituency have been substantially damaged by coal-mining subsidence. The local authority is having difficulty in keeping the roads repaired to a suitable standard. It has
Column 193recently been criticised because of that damage, yet because of the cash limit that has been imposed by the Government, it cannot meet those expenses.
It is important that we deal with the problem of subsidence now in the Bill, which deals with coal industry finance, rather than wait for another Bill to deal with subsidence on its own. The Bill deals with historical finance, and subsidence imposes a historical financial burden on British Coal. As British Coal's finances will not be restructured again for a considerable time, we should deal with the matter now. I hope that the Government will support the new clause.
Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) : It is a pleasure to take part in this debate and a pleasure also to see the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), who used to be the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, and responsible for the coal mining industry, but who has now been moved over to the Department of the Environment by that lady at No. 10. I understand that he is now the Minister for Housing and Planning, and that must be why he is here today : he has an interest in housing--in the housing in which our constituents live, which has been damaged by mining subsidence. The hon. Gentleman knows all about it. He has had his ear clobbered many a time when responding to questions and debates on mining subsidence but he has not done a great deal to sort the problem out. Now he has left it completely. He has gone to another Department and left it to somebody else. So who do we have now? We have as Secretary of State the right hon. Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Wakeham). The right hon. Gentleman does not know a great deal about mining--he has never worked in a pit--and he does not know much about mining subsidence either. He knows about nuclear dumping, though I remember the campaign that he ran in his constituency where they wanted to take boreholes there with a view to dumping nuclear waste. That plan did not come off. The right hon. Gentleman won his campaign and we are asking him to win ours now that he is Secretary of State for Energy.
Before my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) interrupted me, I was about to say that we have a new Under-Secretary of State for Energy responsible for coal. I welcome him, and I hope that he will do something about our problem. I see that he represents Banbury. There are not many pits in Banbury, and not much opencast either. Both the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary have listened to our every word this afternoon. They are getting an education about coal mining and mining subsidence, and they now realise, I am sure, what a serious problem it is. My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras did a marvellous job in opening the debate but I
Column 194ask you, Madam Deputy Speaker, how many pits are there down in Holborn and St. Pancras? My hon. Friend has done his homework and put a first-class case, as have a number of my hon. Friends. A good case has also been put by some Conservative Members and I hope that they will join us in the Lobby, because the new clause is necessary. We have waited for so long. We have clobbered Ministers. In days gone by, I even clobbered the Prime Minister about mining subsidence in my constituency and in other places in Nottinghamshire.
A little while ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned the House of Lords. When a piece of plaster fell from the ceiling, they closed the place down to repair it. It cost a fortune. The Government found the money, as my hon. Friend rightly said. I remember an Environment Minister coming to the House to tell us that Big Ben was 9 in out of true. It is, indeed, 9 in out of true and the reason for that is that we have not always had a car park. All those years ago--25 or 26--they scooped a whacking great hole out beneath the building and put in five floors so that hon. Members could park their cars. [Hon. Members : "Opencast mining."] Opencast mining, yes. The end result was that Big Ben started to be affected and to move out of true. I never go round that way because one never knows. We have been given assurance that it is okay now, but I never give it a chance. That is a perfect illustration of what happens. It is easy to understand the kind of problems that we have in mining areas back in our constituencies.
Mr. Ashton : Is my hon. Friend aware that, only about 10 years ago, the Terrace was raised because of the level of the River Thames? One could put one's hand in the river at high tide. Hundreds of millions of pounds were spent on a Thames barrage to protect this place and the lower areas of London.
Mr. Haynes : There you are, Madam Deputy Speaker : my hon. Friend is leading me in the right direction by referring to money being found to do that kind of work when money is not being found to do the work that we need done in our constituencies.
Mr. Hardy : Does my hon. Friend think that, as global warming occurs and the sea level rises, and all the flat low-lying coastal constituencies represented by Conservative Members are threatened, those hon. Members will be clamouring for lots of public money to defend themselves from inundation by the sea?
Mr. Haynes : Yes, but that will come later, and we have a problem right now. I thought that my hon. Friend was going to take me down lovers' lane, but I am steering clear of that one. I have done enough damage with that one, and I shall not go further.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) and I get people coming to our morning surgeries of a Saturday. The result is that I visit homes on Sunday morning when I should be in church. Like any hon. Member who does his job correctly, I must look after my constituents, so I do not go to church very often. Last Sunday I went to visit a Mr. Taylor of Hill crescent in Sutton in Ashfield. The work on his house has been completed and it is shocking. You cannot close a door, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the door frames have
Column 195whacking great cracks in them. When Mr. Taylor took me outside, I saw that there were whacking great cracks in the bay windows too. I know what is wrong. We have seen British Coal officials go to prison for fiddling over subsidence repairs. Many of the contractors that have been brought in to do the repairs are cowboys, who keep the costs down and make a nice profit, and British Coal does not provide the money necessary to enable them to do the job properly. Another constituent of mine lives just round the corner from where I used to live. When he came to see me, he brought photographs to show me exactly what was happening to his property, which was supposed to have been completed. I wrote to the director of the Nottinghamshire area, who replied, "We have spent enough money on that property : we are not spending any more." That property is not fit to live in. Honestly, it is shocking ; it is disgusting the way they have been treating people back home in our constituencies. We really need the new clause. All right, a Bill has been promised to deal with the subsidence problem at a later stage, but I do not accept that promise, because we have waited and waited and waited. We have had a bellyful ; we want some action from the Government now. The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. John Wakeham) rose--
There are properties--