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Mr. Skinner : In the Bolsover area, several pits have shut over the past several years and a landslip has occurred--like the Scarborough hotel which slid down the pit cliff. I hope that the Minister is listening because it affects many constituents of mine. There are watercourses on the hillside. The neighbouring pits have been shut and, more recently, Bolsover colliery has been shut. So hardly any
Column 201pumping takes place at all, with the result that the hillside has begun to fall away. Already six houses have been demolished, with the prospect of up to 80 more being in jeopardy. When the Scarborough hotel fell down the cliff, money was found under the Coast Protection Act 1949, but because Bolsover is not near the coast the Government do not want to know.
I ask the Minister again to consult his friends at the Department of the Environment to ensure that the people in that area receive grants to resolve the problem on that hillside. As surely as night follows day, that problem is due to the rising water levels in the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has heard about the problem. Six properties in my constituency have already been demolished and the people do not know which way to turn. We need £1.5 million from the Government to ensure that we can put the hillside right. If the Minister cannot find that money in the Bill, he should tell his colleagues at the Department of the Environment to deal with the matter.
Privatisation is about replacing a little public
intervention--although the Coal Board never practised it properly--planning and organisation with market chaos. Nobody will care about anything. When people are striving to make money without any concern for the community, obviously the water will not be taken care of and the environment in general will be discarded because people cannot make profit out of such things.
The Government want to get rid of the problem by just forgetting all about it. If they can just get through the debate and manage to survive the passage of the Bill in this House and in the other place, the local authorities will be saddled with the problem. We are demanding money from the Minister. The debate amounts to a political will and the provision of money. That would enable those who have to deal with the problem to manage effectively, without having to deal with it themselves and without being deprived of the opportunity to receive proper grants through the Bill.
Mr. Dickens : The debate about water flowing through disused mines gives me an opportunity, in response to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), to tell one or two home truths to the House of Commons. First
Mr. Dickens : I was in earlier, my dear. First, let us consider why we are in this position and why coal mines have closed. The hon. Member for Bolsover laid the issue square on the shoulders of the Government, but to my mind that is not correct. I ask hon. Members to cast their minds back to the year-long miners' strike when--[ Interruption. ]
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I have already had to draw the attention of the House and of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to the fact that we are discussing new clause 3 and not the miners' strike of 1984.
Mr. Simon Hughes : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Before the hon. Gentleman speaks, may I point out that he has not been here for most of the debate ? He has not apologised to the House for the fact that he has not been present. Will you ensure that if he trespasses again he does
Column 202not abuse the time of the House when other hon. Members have been present throughout and want to make specific points and not widen the debate out to totally different issues ?
Mr. Dickens : To put the record straight, I spent about an hour at the beginning of the debate sitting here, while the other Deputy Speaker was in the Chair. To say that I have not been here during the debate is a falsehood. I have been to have a meal and I have returned.
Mr. Dickens : New clause 3 relates to flooding water in the coal mines and the sort of action that the Government are proposing, either financially or in kind, to deal with the problem and to place an obligation to be fulfilled by the people purchasing the mines. I know exactly what the debate is about and I intend to speak to it. First, it is important to explain to the House why we are in this position. It is about continuity of supply. The lights have to be kept burning. Industry in an industrial nation must have
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The Chair is responsible for the Chair's actions. I have allowed the hon. Member for Bolsover and any other hon. Member to debate within the bounds of new clause 3. Apart from the time I pulled him up, the hon. Member for Bolsover was quite in order. Once again, I ask the hon. Gentleman to address new clause 3. He should get on with it.
Mr. Dickens : I understand that you represent Pontefract, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that you have always taken a great interest in the coal mining industry. I say that sincerely, because I served with you on the Select Committee and you always put the details, desires and interests of the coal mining industry first and foremost, so I know about your sincere views on the subject.
I had hoped to explain the reasons for the mess that we are in today, but since I must concede to the Chair and respect what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall move on and simply say that it is not the Government's fault that we are in our present position. The mines closed because of circumstances in the past that were beyond the
Column 203Government's doing. There must be continuity of supply, so it was unfair, unjust and incorrect of the hon. Member for Bolsover to blame our Minister for the problem.
I am afraid that because of the restrictions placed on me this evening I cannot extend my speech any longer.
Mr. Clapham : I should like to trespass on the ground that the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) opened, but I have watched the Minister in Committee and I know that he can look after himself.
The new clause, and amendments Nos. 41, 14 and 55, are essential if we are to avoid widespread pollution. Using an example from my constituency, I shall explain to the House what may happen unless the Government are prepared to accept that the Bill must allocate responsibility.
The River Don begins its flow in the Pennines, in my constituency. It flows swiftly towards Penistone and then meanders through the beautiful countryside towards Barnsley, making a turn towards Sheffield. To the west of the A628--the Manchester road--at Millhouse Green, Bullhouse colliery closed in 1961 or 1962. Because it was privately owned, British Coal has denied any responsibility for it. Just after the colliery closed, the mine water from the old pit started to seep into the River Don, and it has now been running into the Don at quite a pace for several years. For about four miles from the spot where the water from the Bullhouse pit enters it, the River Don is totally polluted ; it is an orange colour due to the iron salts in the water. There are no fish, no flora and no fauna--or at any rate, the flora and fauna are greatly deterred by the polluted water. Yet west of the point where the polluted water joins it the Don is an A-grade river whose waters are coveted by the local angling association. We have been pressing for many years to try to get something done about the pollution.
Because the mine was private, British Coal denies any responsibility. We have been corresponding for a year with the National Rivers Authority, but that body says that it does not have the money to deal with the problem. I have also corresponded with the Minister, as well as with the Department of the Environment, to try to persuade them to explore the possibility of making grants available, perhaps through the European Community, to give us the opportunity to start to clear up the river.
That example shows clearly what can happen if no responsibility is laid on the authority or some other body to which we can turn to ensure that a cleaning-up job can be started if an area becomes polluted. It is therefore clear that the new clause and the amendments must be accepted, so if the Government are not prepared to make the required changes I ask Conservative Back Benchers to support the Opposition.
Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) : I shall be as brief as I can, but I must draw the attention of the House to the increasing pollution of the Neath waterways by mining effluent. My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) has investigated the matter in detail through the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, and we are most grateful for what he has done.
The pollution was first identified at the village of Tonmawr, in the River Pelenna, which has suffered increasing pollution and is now a dirty orange- brown colour ; it is at present the subject of a five-year, £1 million -plus programme whose intention is to try to clean
Column 204it up. The significant aspect of that is that the burden falls not on British Coal or on previous mine owners--the mines were private before nationalisation--but directly on the taxpayer, through the Welsh Office and West Glamorgan county council.
The River Pelenna is not the only heavily polluted waterway ; the Neath river, the Neath canal and the River Dulais are all increasingly polluted with mining effluents. Those three waterways are the subject of an interesting story that illustrates the nature of a problem that the Government seem unwilling to recognise, or at least unwilling to concede openly.
When discoloration and pollution started to appear in the Neath canal and the Neath river, it was first thought that it came from the Ynysarwed mine, which closed in 1938 and which had worked the No. 2 Rhondda coal seam. That mine had been discharging a little water for several years, but it had not constituted any threat until spring 1993, when the National Rivers Authority first noticed an increasing discharge from the mine. There was then a sudden but steady increase.
On further investigation, it was realised that the water was coming not from Ynysarwed but from Blaenant colliery, which closed in 1991. How was that happening ? Although both the collieries had worked the No. 2 Rhondda coal seam, they were separated. But as the ground water rose in the Blaenant colliery, it started to seep through a barrier of at least 90 m of coal into Ynysarwed, and so to discharge straight into the Neath canal and the Neath river.
I seek to draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the problem is complex, and that unless it is tackled comprehensively we shall not get to grips with it. The Minister is nodding ; I am grateful for that, and I look forward with anticipation to his reply.
Pumping has now ceased in the Blaenant colliery. When pumping was occurring it artificially depressed the groundwater level there, but when it stopped the water rose to a sufficient height to start entering Ynysarwed and coming through the rock. The position is further complicated by the fact that the mine water is still rising in Blaenant. The National Rivers Authority says that it is increasingly seeping into the River Dulais.
Partly as a result of NRA pressure, Blaenant drift was sealed up in December 1993, but that in turn forced water up the nearby Cefn Coed shaft, where the two mines were linked. We are now told that the water has reached about 30 m from the top of Cefn Coed, which is one of the deepest shafts in Britain, and it is rising at the rate of half a metre a week. We seal up one apparent cause of a problem and the water seeps out elsewhere.
The same thing is occurring all over the Neath constituency. The Neath canal has now been declared ecologically dead below the level of Resolven, near Neath. There are intense concentrations of dissolved iron and oxidised iron ; there is settlement of iron oxides. Fish have had to be recovered and relocated and are in very poor condition. The canal overflows into the River Neath at several points, helping to form deposits of iron hydroxide on the river gravels and causing red discoloration. It has also been blinding the gravels, which has affected the spawning areas, resulting in their destruction. As a result, salmon that spawns in the River Neath is being threatened and in some cases destroyed. Similar problems are affecting the River Dulais, which is also a salmon river. The recent discharges in the river bed at Blaenant are also
Column 205causing iron oxide of the river gravels and affecting the whole of the river for 3 km downstream from Blaenant, which is also affecting salmon spawning.
The problem has an effect on tourism. The upper Dulais falls, which have been regenerated over the past few years with an impressive project--it is a major tourist attraction attracting some 30,000 visitors a year--is affected. A fish pass is embedded in the new project. Salmon are coming up the River Dulais, but they are meeting the pollution from above.
The point of that description is that when a mining area starts to be affected by increasing neglect--as it will be over the years as the problem continues to grow--pumping stops, the water level rises and water seeps all over the place. Elderly residents have told me how the Neath river used to be black in the old days when the mines on each side of it were working-- except during holiday periods when local children used to swim in it. That was a relatively benign form of pollution through coal. The river now has a deep orange-brown toxic form of pollution which is threatening fish and the environment. It will increasingly threaten the health of local residents as the pollution seeps into local water supplies, and it will increasingly threaten tourism.
I am not talking about an isolated problem. Across Wales, the National Rivers Authority has identified 90 sites that are heavily polluted with mine water effluent. We face an ecological nightmare in south Wales with pumping stopping, the Government abandoning their responsibilities and with pollution increasing throughout the area. In Committee, the Government showed a cavalier attitude to the problem ; regrettably, I anticipate the same attitude from the Minister shortly. Effectively, the Bill is a charter for passing the buck between mine owners, old mines and the National Rivers Authority. Neath borough council, West Glamorgan county council and other authorities believe that the protection allegedly offered in the Bill is totally inadequate. That is why new clause 3 is absolutely essential. If the House does not carry it tonight, I hope that at least it will be carried in the House of Lords.
Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck) : It is interesting that new clause 3 has been supported by every speaker except one--the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens), whose contribution could be described as neutral at best. I have spent almost as much time listening to the debate as I spent working in the mining industry looking after mine water. Mine water is the topic which we are debating, although apparently the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth was not aware of that.
I listened carefully to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) about the situation in his constituency and what was applicable in Wales. We must remember that the mines that were worked on each side of the Pennine chain through Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire and Lancashire discharged water. The mines then closed and the water accumulated there. The water came down into the lower areas and there are problems on the coast, certainly in Northumberland and Durham. As my hon. Friend said, the problem goes right through.
Having had some experience of dealing with mine water for a number of years as an engineer in the industry, I
Column 206understand the extent of the problem. The mine in which I worked pumped out 4 tonnes of water for every tonne of coal. That was the scale of the problem. Of course, there were problems other than mine water being discharged from the mines. A mine in my constituency that closed in 1966 worked coal reserves under the North sea. The mine closed, but pumps in the shaft still pump sea water. We have the same problem in the coastal areas of Durham and Northumberland ; we must now pump out sea water to control the problem. Once the pumping system stops, the water accumulates.
I shall make a final comment that is relevant to the debate. There is an historic precedent for this problem. I am old enough to remember that when the mines were nationalised in 1947 the National Coal Board took over the problem of spoil heaps. The board came to the Government for support and, happily, Governments throughout the years have provided financial support to get rid of the spoil heaps. The spoil heaps were created by private coal owners before the mines were nationalised, and they did not spend one penny on dealing with the problem. The National Coal Board, British Coal and successive Governments have had to deal with the problem, and local authorities, taxpayers and ratepayers have paid for it.
Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North) : We have all had the benefit of the brilliant briefing on the general problem given to us by Durham county council. May I illustrate the problem in terms of my constituency ? We have a first-class new cricket ground at Durham. If the weir in front of the ground is polluted, it will not be a good advertisement for all that has happened. In addition, we have the Lumley waterworks, which draws from the river and supplies clean drinking water to Sunderland. If that is polluted, it will cost £24 million to replace. Does my hon. Friend agree that that figure alone makes the case for the amendment ?
I was making a point about spoil heaps. Over the years, major spoil heaps were created by the private coal industry before it was nationalised. The nationalised industry had to cope with the problem, although I accept immediately that it has had Government support over the years since 1947. The spoil heaps have now been dealt with, certainly in my area.
If the problem of spoil heaps is not dealt with properly now, we shall have a similar problem with mine water 10 or 15 years from now. The Government should deal with the problem now. If they do not, it will remain and 10 years from now hon. Members will be spending hours in the Chamber trying to find a way of dealing with it. New clause 3 would provide an opportunity to deal with the problem now, and it should be accepted on that basis.
The theme of speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House is that there is genuine concern about the Durham coalfield, the south Wales coalfield, Nottinghamshire and elsewhere. It may help the House if I briefly try to allay some concerns which I think are completely ill founded. There are other concerns, which I shall discuss later.
Column 207The first concern, which seems to have been put across by Durham county council--it was repeated by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong)--is that the Bill will in some way weaken the environmental controls. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) also went down that route. That simply is not the case. The Bill makes it absolutely clear--it is all there in clause 7(3)--that the environmental obligations that currently rest with British Coal under separate environmental legislation are to be passed on to the Coal Authority unless and until separate licences are given to private sector operators. Therefore, the environmental legislation follows through from British Coal to either the Coal Authority or private sector operators. I thought that we had got that basic fact across to those who are genuinely concerned about environmental regulation.
Mr. Simon Hughes rose
Mr. Eggar : I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I am keen to try to reply in detail to the points that have been made by other hon. Members. It would be for the convenience of the House if I did so as rapidly as possible.
Mr. Hughes : I do not think that the Durham document seeks to say that there has been a weakening. Will the Minister address specifically the proposal on page 7 of the document, which relates to precisely the clause of the Bill to which he is referring ? The Minister will see that the left- hand column refers to an amendment that would add liabilities, including environmental liabilities, in relation to abandoned coal mines.
Mr. Eggar : The hon. Gentleman abuses the right of intervention. I was going on to develop the arguments clearly with respect to that question. If the hon. Gentleman lets me continue, I shall seek to reassure him.
The obligations in terms of responding to existing environmental law and regulations relate under the contents of the Bill either to the Coal Authority or to private sector licensees. It is fundamental to the construction of the Bill both with regard to both safety and environmental obligations that we do not seek in any way to duplicate or mix up the role of the environmental regulatory organisation on one hand or the responsibility for safety on the other. It is a theme of the Bill that the National Rivers Authority remains responsible for environmental regulation.
That is why I must say to the House that I simply do not accept the logic behind new clause 3, or amendments Nos. 41, 55 and 14. They blur the structure which says that there should be an external environmental regulator. The concerns of my hon. Friends and of a number of Opposition Members--particularly the hon. Member for Sunderland, South--are whether the environmental regulations as laid out in the Water Resources Act 1991 are adequate for the future. When people talk about the need to tighten the environmental rules and regulations, they are really addressing the perceived adequacy or otherwise of section 89(3) of the Water Resources Act. The debate is about that section, which provides that a person does not commit an offence by reason only of permitting water from an abandoned mine to enter controlled waters.
The legislation is there in that form because when the Bill was introduced and the Act debated it was felt to be unreasonable to place an absolute obligation in respect of
Column 208environmental damage on a landowner who may never have been responsible for mining at all and who may have bought the land without being aware that it was undermined.
Much to my surprise, I must pay tribute to the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) ; I hope that I shall not ruin his reputation by doing so. The hon. Gentleman recognised how complicated the whole problem is because water flows are not fully understood. That is also true in Durham. It is not a simple matter of saying that there is an absolute obligation on a landowner because he may not in fact have any real responsibility for causing the environmental damage in the first place.
It is precisely because of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friends and by Opposition Members, and because of a more general concern about the whole statutory position with regard to contaminated land, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is currently carrying out a review of the legislative framework of water pollution in general. My right hon. Friend is conducting that review in tandem with a broader review of contaminated land and liabilities. It is obvious that the review must be careful. My right hon. Friend has asked for consultation, and responses are requested by 3 May. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside announced only two weeks ago that he expected the review to be completed later this year.
In the meantime, the Government will make sure that all British Coal's current liabilities continue to be discharged. We have made that absolutely clear in the Coal Authority explanatory note that we have published. I very much hope that when my right hon. Friend introduces his proposals, he will be able to take account of what I recognise as hon. Members' genuine concerns. I hope that he will be able to get the balance right and that he can take account of all of the consultations. On the basis of those assurances, I hope that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) will be willing not to press the new clause.
Mr. Bell : I am grateful for the explanations that the Minister has given. He seems again to have passed the buck to the Department of the Environment. We have seen the buck passed during the past two or three years and it is still being passed. The Opposition made it clear in Committee that we were not satisfied with the explanations that were given by the Minister and that we would bring the matter to the Floor of House.
My hon. Friends and I can hardly be satisfied with the way in which the Executive have disregarded the views of the legislature tonight. The House heard interesting remarks from the hon. Members for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock), for Newark (Mr. Alexander), and for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), and from the right hon. Member for Woking (Sir C. Onslow). They are Conservative Members, and that suggests that there is cross-party support for the suggestion that phrasing on contaminated water should appear somehow in the Bill. On the basis of that, I will not press the amendments, but will seek to divide the House on new clause 3.
Question put , That the clause be read a Second time :
The House divided : Ayes 269, Noes 293
Column 209Division No. 175] [8.50 pm Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F.
Berry, Dr. Roger
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Corston, Ms Jean
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)
Donohoe, Brian H.
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Eagle, Ms Angela
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Foster, Don (Bath)
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Golding, Mrs Llin
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Harman, Ms Harriet
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Home Robertson, John
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Mo n)
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Khabra, Piara S.
Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil (Islwyn)
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)