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Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark) : I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House await with great interest the Minister's response to the concerns that have been expressed so far--concerns which are felt equally by the residents of Nottinghamshire and by the people of the other areas that have been mentioned.
Column 189When the Bill was first mooted I was asked by constituents in north Nottinghamshire what proposals would be made, under the new arrangements, to deal with mine water pollution. I said that I would be very surprised if arrangements were not spelt out clearly when the Bill came before the House and was considered in Committee. I am indeed surprised that we have reached this stage without being able to give our constituents the assurances that they seek. We shall listen most carefully to such assurances as the Minister can give us during the debate.
The primary cause for concern about mine water stems from the provisions of the Water Resources Act 1991, section 89 of which states that it is not an offence to permit water from an abandoned mine to enter controlled waters. That has created great concern, not least in Durham, whose county council has given us a briefing on the subject.
To switch off the pumps and allow the mines to fill up, and then to discharge polluted water, is a positive act, but it is not illegal or actionable under current law. My amendment would restrict the possibility of widespread environmental decline. It proposes that it should be an offence to allow mine water to escape from any mine in the ownership of British Coal. With the unparalleled number of mines that are closing, there is growing concern about the possible harm from the escape of contaminated water from abandoned mines and thence into the water system.
Reference has been made to the arrangements between British Coal and the National Rivers Authority. Fourteen days' notice of cessation of pumping is minimal, but even that number is not written into the Bill. Once mines have been abandoned, with no responsibility on operators to prevent water from escaping, not only will existing provisions come to an end but an unknown quantity of new hazards is likely to appear. What is required is a holding operation until each closed colliery can be properly assessed and measures taken to prevent polluted water from entering the system.
At the very least, we must ensure that polluted water does not escape or that it is cleaned before its entry into the water system. If neither the operators nor British Coal or the Coal Authority is responsible for this pollution, there is a real fear that the long-term costs of the problem will fall on local people. Local resources will have to be found, in the form of the council tax, to clean up the problem in the very areas suffering the greatest hardship from the closure of coalfields.
This is an important issue ; the House looks forward to hearing what reassurances my hon. Friend can give on the subject.
Mr. Simon Hughes : The Minister will have begun by now to get the message
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) : I doubt it.
Mr. Hughes : --although the hon. Gentleman appears to have lingering suspicions.
Hon. Members have spoken about their local communities and concerns, but we also need to tackle this problem nationally and in the light of the experiences to which I alluded earlier. With the tin mines in Cornwall we have seen what can happen if water leaking from mines into the water system is not controlled : there was a huge
Column 190regional panic and many regional resources had to be deployed. In fact, the problem was not adequately dealt with even then--it was too late.
The Minister well knows that there is widespread support inside and outside the House for tightening up the Bill. Local government in particular is determined that there must be a better system--not only the Association of County Councils but local government generally. The Minister has had representations from the Coalfield Communities Campaign and from all the amenity organisations : the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association, and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors have all added their voices, saying that something must be done.
As the hon. Members for Newark (Mr. Alexander) and for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) have said, we were greatly helped just today by a briefing given to us by Durham county council, which briefed Members of both Houses and of all parties and which provided us with a comprehensive document which we heard discussed only this morning.
Neither the President of the Board of Trade, on Second Reading, nor Ministers in Committee appeared to honour the obligation that the Government had seemed willing to undertake. In effect, the Government said that they were going to privatise the coal industry and transfer liabilities from British Coal to the Coal Authority. That prompted one question and did not deal with another. Are the current arrangements adequate ? They are not. Furthermore, with the transfer of responsibilities, no corresponding duties have been transferred, let alone resources. Such obligations must be placed on people in advance, so that we all know who will be responsible.
The Government have often argued that the polluter should pay--that, they say, is one of the principles in their environmental legislation. It is all very well, provided the polluter can pay ; and, much more importantly, provided the polluter is given a duty to prevent the sort of incidents that might result in his having to pay. That means imposing duties.
The Minister has before him a whole menu of amendments. New clause 3, for instance, requires that the holder of the licence prevent discharges. The Minister and I attended the same law course and were taught the same things about legal duties. He therefore knows that the duty on a licensee can be written into statute.
New clause 3 includes a duty to continue pumping--a duty that must not be allowed to wither just because that may be in the interests of the Coal Authority or the licensee. In the same way, in County Durham the Coal Board has no interest in continuing pumping because certain mines will never be reopened. The point is not to serve these bodies' interests : it is to serve the wider interest.
New clause 3 also provides that no permission should be given to the holder of a licence to allow mine water to be discharged. Moreover, as the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) argued, a method of preventing pollution must be written into the Bill to protect the environment. Certainly that is a general duty, but it is at least a starting point.
Another amendment would extend the obligation, in clause 2, to persons in respect of subsidence to include
Column 191damage from mine water. And a general duty should be imposed on the Coal Authority to look after the environment.
As more than one hon. Member has argued, there is also a need to deal with the exemptions provided for by the Water Resources Act 1991--and there are ways of dealing with them, such as the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Newark. However we do it, the point remains the same : to create a criminal offence. As the Minister knows, the Water Resources Act specifically gives exemptions in relation to permitting water from an abandoned mine to enter controlled waters. Another exemption in the same legislation means that the NRA does not have the power to carry out works to prevent such pollution or to recover the costs involved. That, too, needs to be changed in law.
We are left with the obvious need to tighten up the Bill. To be consistent with their environmental principles and their claims about the importance of water quality and consequent environmental duties, the Government cannot resist the new clause. A few minutes ago, I heard the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) say very quietly--unusually for him--from a sedentary position that organisations will need resources. It is impossible to place a duty on someone and then say, "You have got to carry out that duty, even if you do not have the resources." Whether the organisation involved is the National Rivers Authority, the Coal Authority or the local authority does not matter. If an organisation breaches its duty but does not have the resources to prevent pollution, it is nonsense to give it that duty.
Week in, week out we place legislative requirements on people without giving them the resources to carry out the duties. It is too late to hold an inquiry and a departmental inquiry to find out what happened and pour money in after the damage has been done. That is not good enough. The Minister has been warned and I hope that he and the Government will be responsible and will respond to the warnings and the requirement.
I know that the Government are concerned that if they include in the Bill the fact that a duty will be placed on purchasers, it will frighten off some of those purchasers. We know the score, we are not silly about the matter, but the Government's view is unacceptable. It is no good trying to flog off bits of the coal industry and to make it more saleable without making it responsible.
Mr. Hardy : Will the hon. Gentleman note that the South Yorkshire mines drainage unit, based in my constituency, was set up in the inter-war years by the private mining industry ? If the private coal mine owners accepted at that distant time that a responsibility existed, it is reasonable to expect the new private coal mine owners at least to be asked to consider it.
Mr. Hughes : The National Rivers Authority has said to the Government that the present legislative proposals are unacceptable--it said that expressly in relation to Tyne and Wear and also generally. It advanced that argument during the Committee stage of the Bill. It has conducted research and it has done its homework. It realises that the issue is controversial because it might affect the saleability of the coal industry once it is privatised. It is not acceptable, however, to put at risk not only the immediately affected communities but the water network, which could extend
Column 192not just locally, but down estuaries to the sea. There is no limit to the damage that could be done. We have a chance to prevent it. I hope that Ministers will act responsibly. They may say that the amendments are defective. We do not mind if that is their response. There will be time for them to introduce tougher and better amendments. The county councils and the Association of County Councils will help. Plenty of work has been done and there are many people out there who know what they are talking about and can assist. They could even be seconded to the Department for a week on a higher salary. I hope that the Minister will not let the warnings go unheeded. He has a great responsibility.
Sir Cranley Onslow (Woking) : I apologise to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) for not being able to be present to hear him move the new clause. I want to speak in support of what has been said about the importance of ensuring that pollution from abandoned mines does not enter the rivers, rendering them useless for any environmental purpose and making them, almost literally, a blot on the landscape.
I declare an interest. I am a council member of the Anglers' Co-operative Association, which has a reputation for vigorously prosecuting water polluters. It recently took the British Coal to court in south Wales over a pollution case, which is still sub judice, so I shall make no further reference to it. It is important that the Minister should respond to the spirit of what has been said in the debate.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House share a desire to see our countryside improved and not to let it deteriorate. In that context, nothing is more important than keeping our rivers pure so that everyone can enjoy them, not least anglers. Although I have not had the opportunity to fish in the rivers in the constituency of the hon. Member for Durham, North -West (Ms Armstrong), I envy those who have, because I know what a reputation they have gained and how much they have improved.
My hon. Friend the Minister does not need me to remind him that section 141 of the Water Resources Act 1991 requires the National Rivers Authority to maintain, improve and develop fisheries throughout the country. I do not see how it will be easy for it do that if it is faced with the problem of polluted water from abandoned coal mines flooding into water courses.
I hope that the Minister will tell us that he is sympathetic to the arguments that have been advanced. On behalf of anglers and anyone else who enjoys the countryside, I hope that he will ensure that we have an effective defence against pollution.
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) : This issue has been around for a long time and it is astonishing that it has not been dealt with before. As has already been said, the present legal position is unclear. It is one of the problems about which there appears to be some buck-passing between British Coal and the National Rivers Authority and between their respective political masters, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment. The Bill will not improve matters, but will make them worse.
The key to the issue is that we are talking about big money and nobody wants to pick up the responsibilities and liabilities. We should remember that at Wheal Jane colliery the National Rivers Authority has worked hard to clear up a real mess. The cost in grant aid to the
Column 193Government has been £8 million--that is the scale of money about which we are talking. Given that scale of money, it is not surprising that British Coal and the NRA, so I am reliably told, are talking to each other through their lawyers because they are frightened of committing themselves and picking up any liabilities.
The issue affects the whole country. It affects the Nottinghamshire coalfield, which still operates and still has a future, I hope, in the privatised industry. It has recently been announced that the Annersley Bentinck colliery is to close. It pumps out mine water from the east of the Derbyshire coalfield and the west of the Nottinghamshire coalfield. That water is treated on the site of Annersley Bentinck colliery and is taken by pipeline some 10 miles to be discharged into the River Trent. Only the volume of water in the River Trent can deal with that level of pollution.
What will happen when the pumps are turned off at Annersley Bentinck colliery ? It is all very well for the Minister to say that there is a memorandum of understanding between British Coal and the National Rivers Authority. That memorandum is not backed by law ; it is a short-term palliative. It requires British Coal to give the NRA only 14 days' notice. That is not good enough. There will be real problems if the issue is not dealt with in the Bill.
It is clear that mine water discharge not only discolours the water by introducing heavy metals like iron, but has a knock-on effect on water companies. Mine water is pumped into rivers. Some of those rivers are associated with sewage works. Many of those sewage works only just meet emission standards. If there is a drop in water volume--and there will be if the pumping stops--it is clear that a great deal of remedial work will need to be carried out at those sewage works to meet environmental standards. The cost of that will be immense. The Minister should consult his colleagues to find out the water companies' estimates for that remedial work.
We will pay for that remedial work through our water and sewerage costs. We shall pay in other ways because polluted water will inevitably lead to the loss of plant life and wildlife in streams in Nottinghamshire and other coalfield communities. Some 80 per cent. of the drinking water in Nottinghamshire is pumped from the underlying aquifer, the bunter sandstone. That aquifer is fissile--it has been affected by mining subsidence.
There is a real possibility of discharged polluted mine water penetrating the bunter sandstone. The Government should listen to good professional advice. The British Geological Survey, based at Keyworth in Nottinghamshire, put forward a proposition that has great merit : that no pumping at collieries should be switched off until a full geological survey of the effects of ceasing pumping has been undertaken.
We should remember that the quality of Nottinghamshire water has attracted inward investment. The Toray factory at Mansfield came to Nottinghamshire specifically because it required high-quality water to treat its textiles. It drilled a new well in Mansfield to provide that water.
We need and deserve new investment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) said, one of the ways to attract new investment
Column 194into coalfield communities is to portray an attractive and forward-looking environment. The proposals in the Bill do nothing to secure that.
The new clause and the amendment secure the future ; they tackle the problems. The Minister told us in Committee that he was aware of, and sympathised with, the problems. He told us that at the end of the day the Coal Authority would underwrite the Bill. If that is the case and his understanding of it, I hope that he will give us some comfort and say clearly--if not tonight, very soon--that he will introduce into the Bill provisions to protect our future environment.
People in coalfield communities are used to dirt and discharge, but they also want the benefits of the other side of the coin. People who work in that environment respect the countryside ; they want better for their children than they had for themselves. The issue must be tackled, and I hope that the Minister will listen to the views from all parts of the House.
Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe) : It is a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) in his place. I hope that his leg is improving and that it has not caused him too much pain to take part in the debate ; his presence is a measure of his concern.
Mr. Skinner : He will last longer than Gazza.
Mr. Lester : He is not under as much strain as Gazza who is trying to play for England.
I support my hon. Friends the Members for Newark (Mr. Alexander) and for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) and all those who have already spoken.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) suggested an integrated approach, and the abstract concerns are important. In my constituency there was a mine overflow. For some reason, a mistake was made at Moorgreen pit and the overflow of water came gushing down a narrow ditch into a broader brook and flooded a whole row of houses. I vividly remember being called to the emergency and seeing the terrible problems that the people in those homes suffered. We are all used to seeing pictures on television of people in wellingtons plodding around two or three feet of water in their homes. In this case, it was two or three feet of black slurry which could not be washed out or wished away. It was a serious emergency. If it had not been for the council being able to mobilise a great deal of help to stop it getting worse, the flooding would have extended to many more houses. Much work was required to ensure that it would never happen again.
It is one thing to talk in abstract ; it is another to see the consequences of an overflow and to recognise how important it is we get it right. Amendment No. 7, which seeks to remove the exception, is one way forward. I also follow what the hon. Member for Sherwood said about the catchment area and the importance of clean water. Hardy Hansons brewery in my constituency has been brewing beer for 150 years. One reason why it is there is the quality of the water. Over the years, it has sought to protect the catchment area whence it gets its water, as the well that serves the brewery is important to the quality of the beer. Any concern of Hardy Hansons would be considerable, especially as there are many old mine workings in the area and no one has specific responsibility to ensure that an overflow could not pollute that catchment area.
Column 195It is important that my hon. Friend the Minister listens carefully to all that has been said. We need specific assurances on responsibility and financing, which cannot be left in limbo or addressed in a vague way. If the composite of new clauses and amendments is not the right and total answer for the Department, it behoves Ministers to introduce clauses to deal with the issue to the satisfaction of hon. Members on both sides who share this concern. 7.45 pm
Mr. Mullin : First, let me welcome the new clause and the amendments. Most of us here tonight have been trying to draw the attention of the DTI and the Department of the Environment to the problem for some time. I had an Adjournment debate on the subject last July.
I find it incredible that the Bill should be published in the face of the enormous amount of advice that has been received from all quarters and from people of all political persuasions and should contain no explicit mention of responsibility for the consequences of mine water pollution.
Our attention in the Durham coalfield was first drawn to the matter when Easington council, which played a very helpful role in exposing the likely consequences, commissioned a report from Dr. Paul Younger, a lecturer in water resources at Newcastle university. He set out graphically what the consequences would be for the River Wear, which is one of the most beautiful rivers in the country and flows through Sunderland, if the pumps were switched off. The water table would rise ; the long-term effect would be catastrophic ; the flora and fauna of the River Wear, part of which runs through National Trust woodlands, would be devastated ; the water supply to the city of Sunderland would be imperilled ; wildlife would be endangered, as would livestock grazing near the river ; use of the river by human beings for sports purposes would probably have to be restricted to wet weather ; and there was a danger that parts of the Durham and Sunderland coastline, which has fine and well-used beaches would be contaminated.
The Minister has received warnings ; hon. Members from both sides have agreed that the Bill needs to make it quite clear where the responsibility will lie. No quantity of assurances from this or any other Minister will get round the fundamental problem that the Bill provides for no responsibility when things go wrong. Things are already beginning to go wrong, as my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) has mentioned. We can already see the consequences in some places.
Nothing in the behaviour of British Coal until now suggests that we need have any confidence in its assurances. Such concessions as have been obtained have been wrung out of British Coal by the National Rivers Authority. It has delayed, it has not provided information that it should have provided and at one stage it ridiculed the assertions by Dr. Younger, whom I quoted a moment ago.
British Coal has now signed the memorandum of understanding which provides for just 14 days' notice before the pumps are switched off. The memorandum is useless for any other purpose except that it gives 14 days to take legal action or perhaps to obtain an injunction. As everyone knows, the law is so unclear that no one can be confident of the outcome of legal action.
Column 196Elsewhere, British Coal has walked away from its responsibilities. The waters of Girvan, in Ayrshire, were polluted in the 1970s, and mine water seriously polluted the River Ore in Fife. Wheal Jane, in Cornwall, has also been mentioned ; that, of course, is a tin mine. The Minister has no excuse for not knowing about those problems. He has been warned by people of all persuasions : as I discovered this afternoon, he has even been warned by the National Rivers Authority. I should like to hear from him in that regard. I was a member of the Standing Committee considering the Water Bill, which was enacted in 1989, and I heard all the assurances about how effective the NRA would be. I understand that the authority--chaired by a former Tory Cabinet Minister, and set up by the present Government--has written to the Department of the Environment, saying that something must be written into the Bill to clarify the position. Is that so ? I appreciate that the Minister does not come from that Department, but no doubt it is represented here tonight. What response has been given to the NRA ? It is incredible that a body set up by the Government specifically to advise on what should be done about this kind of pollution is being ignored.
Many of my constituents are very angry. We can all see the problem coming. Durham is one of the places that will be affected at an early stage ; it is a world heritage site. Why are we standing by and allowing this to happen, when the solutions are reasonably obvious ?
Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham) : The River Wear runs through the centre of my constituency, which my hon. Friend visits regularly. Literally hundreds of people are now terrified of what will happen to the river in the event of pollution. I know that my hon. Friend often walks along its banks ; he will be aware that pollution would devastate the city of Durham. He will also be aware that hundreds of thousands of people visit Durham each year : it is now one of the most sought-after tourist spots in the north of England.
Mine water pollution would have a catastrophic effect throughout the city. Why in the name of heaven does the Minister not take the advice that he has received from virtually every expert ? He has been told that the problem will arise, but he is taking no action. Even at meetings that I have attended, he has failed to respond to the genuine fears of my constituents.
Mr. Mullin : My hon. Friend has the privilege of representing the most beautiful city in England. As he says, the consequences for his constituency will be worse even than the consequences for the city of Sunderland.
Real anger is felt about the lack of action. The problem has been repeatedly drawn to the attention of the Minister's Department, and other Departments ; the National Rivers Authority is attempting to draw it to the Minister's attention. I particularly want to hear what response his Department, or the Department of the Environment, has given to the NRA.
Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) for his kind words at the beginning of this debate.
The issue involved in the new clause and amendments is clear : British Coal, or any other pit owner, is effectively responsible only for pollution from working mines. Once a mine has been abandoned, the responsibility ceases. The
Column 197issue was examined in detail in March 1992 by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which I still have the proud honour to chair ; and, on 10 February 1993, I presented a ten-minute Bill to examine it further.
The environmental aspect is very simple. During mining operations, the mineral pyrite, or iron sulphide--which is often found in the coal seam--is exposed. When exposed to air and water, pyrite is oxidised into ferrous sulphate and sulphuric acid, a process which may be catalysed by the presence of chemo-synthetic bacteria.
The effects of that process were clearly spelt out in the debate in February last year, and many hon. Members have made the same point this evening. Let me say merely that the oxidisation of those metals ruins the spawning gravels for breeding fish, and leaves only some species of alga to grow into thick blankets of unpleasant-looking cover. That affects the overall eco-system of flora and fauna, especially bird species. Sometimes the water is also contaminated by traces of cadmium, zinc and other heavy metals. Such invisible pollution has far more serious implications for the food chain. I congratulate the Welsh Office on commissioning a detailed study of the problem from the NRA. The study, published last Wednesday, is entitled "A Survey of Ferruginous Minewater Impacts in the Welsh Coalfields". It is extremely interesting : it examines two stages of a scientific analysis of the problem. In stage one, the NRA in the Welsh region located 90 discharges in Wales, and found that 59.4 km of river had been affected by ferruginous discharges ; an area measuring 220,000 sq miles had been affected by iron hydroxide deposition.
In stage two, the NRA examined 33 of the top-rank discharges--those with the greatest environmental impact--selecting them with chemical, biological and fisheries impact assessments. That analysis is extremely interesting, but I wish to concentrate on a specific river identified by the NRA as the worst in Wales, in terms of biological impact. It clearly illustrates the possible effects of such discharges on life in a Welsh river polluted by an operator who has then walked away--in this instance, British Coal.
I am sure that the Minister has read the NRA survey with his customary diligence. I should be grateful if he would put his mind to considering how he intends to clean up the site identified by the NRA, and tells us in his reply. On page 19, the survey states : "The site at which the greatest environmental impact occurred was below the discharge from Morlais colliery, Llangennech, Llanelli" in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies). That refers to the drainage of mine waters from beneath old coal workings in my constituency, particularly at the various coal measures on the eastern side of the Burry estuary.
The survey states :
"The minewater was having a dramatic impact upon the invertebrate fauna . . . The degree of deposition of iron hydroxide at the site was very high and the downstream iron concentration (max. 26.42 mg/l) was the highest of the 33 sites studied and well in excess of the environmental quality standard . . . for total iron. Such a high iron loading had a highly deleterious impact upon the invertebrate fauna causing a complete loss of 14 families and a reduction of 3 families at the site immediately downstream of the discharge . . .
The ferruginous deposits impacted upon a wide range of families some of which are recognised as tolerant of other forms of pollution".
Column 198I use that quotation because the NRA clearly showed that it is the worst polluted river in Wales in terms of the chemical, biological and other elements that it examined in detail. I want to know what provision in the Bill will help to clean up the mess.
On 16 December last year, in my capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Wales to ask him for his comments on the Bill. In his reply of 12 January this year, he wrote :
"On the matter of water pollution from abandoned mines, we will ensure that both the historic and current liabilities of British Coal will continue to be discharged following privatisation. Those liabilities not transferred to mining operators will be discharged by the public sector. We have also announced our intention to review the legislative framework relating to water pollution from abandoned mines of all kinds. These matters are currently under careful consideration. "
I am interested in eliciting from the Minister some form of assurance that the problems highlighted by hon. Members of all parties will not be avoided but will be dealt with.
I conclude by drawing attention to what the Royal Commission on environmental pollution made clear in its 16th report published in 1992. It said :
"where the owners of the site are unwilling or unable to carry out work to reduce the risk of pollution, the authorities should seek from the Government the support and necessary funds to have the work carried out".
Will the Minister accept the amendments ? It would be a welcome change if he were to do so, but, if he cannot, will he at least give a more substantial assurance than merely saying that reed-bed technology is being examined and that that is the limit of the further consideration that the Government are giving to the issue ? The problem exists and it will not go away. I very much hope that the Minister will give an answer that is a little more comprehensive than that of the Secretary of State for Wales who said that the issue was still under consideration. Has that consideration now finished ? If so, what provision is to be added to the Bill ? If the Minister is not prepared to give us the assurance that we seek, we shall have to hope that it will be added in another place.
Mr. Skinner : All the hon. Members who have spoken this evening have said that some form of words should be added to the Bill to relieve the problems that will ensue in every area where there are coalfields and where there are, in any case, already a lot of problems.
The problem of mine water pollution is not new. It just so happens that there has been a massive closure programme, especially in the past 10 years. There were 170 pits 10 years ago, and there are now about 17. In many cases, pits have had to take over the pumping that was done by pits that have been closed. The problem became chronic with the result that, at one pit in my area, it is costing £5,000 per week per pump to pump out the water that has gathered as a result of the closure of the adjacent seven or eight pits. That has been the problem in Durham and in every coalfield in Britain.
Because of the massive closure programme, the problem has now become too big to handle. The Government are simply standing aside, believing that as no one has bothered much about the problem until now they can shunt off the coal industry--or the small number of remaining pits--to the Coal Authority. They think that they can heave a sigh of relief and, as happened with the establishment of the Benefits Agency and the rest of the quangos, then tell Members of Parliament, "It is nowt to do
Column 199with us." The matter will be left to the National Rivers Authority and the local authorities. The poor old local authorities, which are mainly Labour controlled, will be told by a succession of Ministers that they must find the ways and means to resolve the problem, but without adequate money or standard spending assessment grants. Only a weeks ago--we are still talking about it--the Government found about £230 million for the Pergau dam. It is not as if the Government cannot find the money. We are probably talking about a much smaller sum than that for the pits, but, because it suited the Government to line the pockets of their friends operating in Malaysia, they came up with the money there. The Government were worried not about jobs but about making money, so they were able to find the necessary brass. We want no excuses from the Government that they cannot find the necessary money because this is not a minor issue. The Government talk about Rio, the environment and all the rest of it, but this is a classic example of the Government's having been found out. They make abstract generalisations about saving the environment, but they do absolutely nothing at all.
The Minister has a duty to find a form of words to enable local authorities and people who live in the communities to provide for proper water in their areas. One of the things that antagonise people in the coalfield constituencies is that for a century or more--in Durham, it goes back for many centuries--people have had to put up with all the muck associated with pits. They have had to put up with pit tips and water running off them. Everything associated with coalfields has been muck and mess. Now that the pits have closed, many people are asking why they cannot have a bit of greenery and some clean water. That is the anger that my hon. Friends are expressing and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are no exception : you cannot participate in the debate, but you know and understand the problem. Pits have been closed and opencast mining has taken place, resulting in great big holes and water running all over the place. It has now become such a big problem that no one knows how to tackle it. What is the water like ? It has been described as black and oily, but we used to call it ochre water. I do not know whether it was the same in Nottingham, but I see my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) nodding. Nothing could live in it, but we used to mess about in it when we were kids and we got a dear old belter for doing so
Mr. Eggar : Those were the days.
Mr. Skinner : They were indeed the days. They were not golden days, but they were the days when my father worked two or three days a week if he was lucky. The hon. Gentleman who masquerades as a Minister yearns for those conditions to come back and the Government are working towards it. They have already chucked 4 million people out of work and they would like to see people on three and three. They would achieve it after privatisation if they were to remain in office, but they are being run by a tinpot wimp who does not know whether he is on this earth or fuller's earth. We shall soon be seeing the back of the Prime Minister and then we shall get around to dealing with the water problems in the coalfields. I know that I took a long, circuitous route in making that point, but the Minister provoked me.
Mr. Irvine Patnick (Lords Commissioner to the Treasury) : You are easily provoked.
Mr. Skinner : I am easily provoked when it is all about workers. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) does not have to put up with such problems.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Will the hon. Gentleman return to the new clause before the House ?
Mr. Skinner : We are talking about dirty water. We are talking about a dirty, rotten, lousy Government and the two things go together. One cannot draw a line between them. The Government can find money for their rich friends--£50 billion in tax cuts--but they cannot find money to resolve the problem of mine water. What is that water like ? It has been described as black and oily.
When I worked down Glapwell colliery, the water was 800 yards deep in parts and it came off the seam. The miners who worked on the coal face did not wear shirts ; they had only knee pads, shorts and boots. That water used to come out of the strata. I used to take the miners to the social security tribunal--this is water that we are discussing--where cases were carried to the extent that it was agreed that the water was so full of chemicals that it caused ulcers on the miners' backs and it was made a prescribed industrial disease. That water permeates the water courses, it travels down the valleys in Wales and everywhere else and finishes up in drinking water. The Government would not tolerate that kind of water if it was anywhere near Buckingham palace. They would resolve the problem there. But the water happens to be in the coalfields where the Tories do not care. They know that there, by and large, with rare exceptions, people support the Labour party.
I want to draw the Ministers' attention to that problem and I want some answers. He sits there grinning like a Cheshire cat. Let us sort out the problem. Some people have said that because of the closure of the pits, the water courses have risen substantially. I believe that that is true in Bolsover.
Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester) indicated dissent.
Mr. Skinner : What is up with the hon. Gentleman ? Has he got St. Vitus's dance ? He is another one who has several jobs and is not satisfied with living on £30,000 a year as a Member of Parliament. He lines his pockets on the side. Perhaps his constituents would like to hear about that as well.
In the Bolsover area, several pits are closed