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Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark) : I beg to move amendment No.2, in page 37, line 24, after substitution', insert
(a) in relation to any claim for compensation for subsidence damage, for references to the Corporation of references to the Authority ; and
Mr. Deputy Speaker : With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments : No. 3, in page 37, line 24, after damage', insert otherwise'.
No. 4, in page 37, line 26, at end insert
(1A) The Authority shall be entitled to recover all payments, costs and expenses made or incurred under subsection (1) above from the person (if any) who is the responsible person under subsection (2) of this section.'.
No. 29, in clause 45, page 39, line 32, leave out from State' to the end of the line and insert
shall by regulations ensure that the Coal Authority will assume sole and proper responsibility for retaining the necessary expertise and resources for arrangements for the resolution of subsidence claims including'.
No. 28, in clause 46, page 40, line 39, at end insert :
(2A) Where a claimant for subsidence damage is assisted by the subsidence adviser, the subsidence adviser shall be responsible for ensuring that the damage notice is forwarded to the operator responsible for damage or to the Coal Authority.
(2B) Where the subsidence adviser has forwarded the damage notice to the operator, he shall inform the Authority of his action and send the Authority a copy of the damage notice.'.
Mr. Alexander : The amendment basically would require the Coal Authority to take over the responsibility for claims for subsidence damage after the date of the restructuring of the industry. There has been uncertainty and confusion over subsidence, and I welcome the opportunity to raise the matter with my hon. Friend and to outline the basic concerns. I think that he would agree that experience of compensation claims generally suggests that the person who is liable can be as difficult as he or she can be before settling up, and they delay for as long as possible.
The proposed subsidence adviser may help in preventing that, but his powers seem very few, and the way in which the Bill has been drafted suggests that having the adviser cannot be the answer to the problems of properly dealing with claims.
There is no uniform procedure for claimants, and the danger is that those with potential liabilities may try to discourage claimants by making it as difficult as possible for them to claim. I should be glad to have my hon. Friend's reassurance on that aspect when he winds up this short debate.
Every hon. Member knows that even the most profitable company can become insolvent from time to time. We hear of large and virtually household names --I need not mention any of them--which have found themselves unable to meet their liabilities. Those who are suffering in cases of subsidence damage are particularly disadvantaged. They have generally received no benefit from the operation of the coal mining under their houses.
My hon. Friend stated in Committee that the Coal Authority would be responsible in the last resort. I accept what he says, but that is not in the Bill, and I would like reassurance again on that point. He also pointed to the
Column 355authority's right to terminate an area of responsibility for subsidence under clause 37. However, that is of little comfort to the claimant if there is no way of making the authority settle within a reasonable time, or at all.
Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton) : The hon. Gentleman is correct in his explanation of the difficulties which could be faced by people suffering from mining subsidence damage if something is not included in the Bill which is firm and gives protection. Some of my constituents are having difficulty under the present system of registering and claiming for mining subsidence compensation. If we are witnessing problems now, heaven knows what the situation will be under privatisation. I support the amendment, and I am following the deliberations closely. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will press his case as hard as he can with the Minister.
Mr. Alexander : I like to think that I am pressing the case hard now.
The hon. Gentleman brings me to my next point. There is nowhere in the Bill where the authority on termination would be responsible for claims already made against the operator at the time of termination. That is partly the hon. Gentleman's point. If it is intended that the authority should provide some safety net, we should be told, and that should be put in the Bill.
I do not want to pursue the point for too long, and I conclude in this way. The explanatory note issued by the Department of Trade and Industry noted that the authority has a duty only so far as practicable to secure that
"those owed obligations in respect of subsidence damage do not sustain loss as a consequence of a failure by those licensed to carry on coal-mining operations to make reasonable financial provision for meeting their liabilities."
In a briefing sent to hon. Members who have taken an interest in the debate and in the Bill, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors noted that that just does not sound like a responsibility which will be undertaken and accepted in the Bill.
I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend's response to the concerns enunciated in the amendment.
Mr. Michael Alison (Selby) : I join my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) in expressing misgivings on behalf of a wide range of constituents in Selby district. They include private individuals such as farmers and householders, as well as people in official positions, such as the clerks to the Ouse and Derwent internal drainage board and the Went internal drainage board, and the administration manager of Selby district council. They continue to have misgivings about the prospects for proper administration and funding of subsidence problems.
I start by sounding a positive note to my hon. Friend the Minister, whose conscientious care for the anxieties expressed from all parts of the House about the implications of the Bill has been a model of what a helpful Minister should provide for the House. I am particularly grateful to him for making certain that we have been sent draft copies of the coal mining subsidence damage popular guide, and for his having taken the trouble to publish and circulate in advance the draft subsidence regulations. My hon. Friend has been disarming about that, and we are obliged to him for his helpful attitude.
The main anxiety about which I have received representations relates, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newark pointed out, to the possible insolvency of a licence
Column 356operator. It was vividly expressed to me in a letter from Peter Bains, who is the clerk to the Ouse and Derwent internal drainage board. He made some commendatory comments about British Coal and the present arrangements and commented on the arrangements which apply to all private people in relation to British Coal.
As far as the internal drainage board is concerned, he said : "I cannot speak too highly of the way in which British Coal discharge their obligations. Problems are identified quickly. Emergency measures are taken by British Coal when necessary. They are receptive to the requirements of the drainage board. Remedial schemes are prepared with the absence of bureaucracy. Above all, the cost is funded by British Coal as an essential priority.
The concern of the drainage board is this. What guarantee is there that remedial schemes will be funded by private companies without regard to their financial position ? . . . What happens if a licensed mine operator becomes insolvent ? I can answer that question myself, the position becomes disastrous."
As I would have expected, my hon. Friend the Minister helpfully examined the issue after I raised it with him on an earlier occasion. In a letter which he sent to me on 17 February he said :
"Where a mining company is liable, the Coal Authority will have a statutory duty to look carefully at the financial standing of mining companies, especially in relation to their ability to meet subsidence liabilities. Where necessary, the Authority will require operators to form special financial security arrangements, and the Bill provides that these arrangements can be set up so as to ensure that this security is effectively ring fenced for the protection of subsidence claimants."
Those words are prima facie helpful and reassuring, but they do not entirely and conclusively evacuate anxiety from my constituents, whether private individuals or corporate bodies.
The Minister clearly based his letter of 17 February on the provisions in clause 2(1)(c) of the Bill, which could hardly have a more robust or splendidly explicit and reassuring ring about them in terms of the Government's determination to make certain that moneys will be put aside and properly protected for meeting subsidence claims in case of insolvency. However, unfortunately, clause 2(1)(c) is governed by the tell-tale phrase "so far as practicable" in clause 2(1). That phrase is a term of art and not, unfortunately, a pillar of potential in the law courts.
Although clause 2(1)(c) is not meant to be so definitive as clauses 29 and 36, the fact remains that it is the introductory operative paving section, and it contains the dreadful, portentous and uncertain words, "so far as practicable".
I passed my hon. Friend's letter to one or two slightly jaundiced scrutineers in my constituency. In the words of one of them who wrote back to me :
"The security arrangements' to which Mr. Eggar refers will be no good at all unless they involve cash down' to await a subsidence claim. Bonds or guarantees from third parties no matter of what financial standing are no answer to the potential problems that I outlined. The reason for this is that the institutions (and their assessors) who provide such security are masters of delay and obstruction . . . But land drainage and flood protection remedial work will not wait, and drainage authorities are certainly not in the position of being able to advance the money until reimbursement." I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can give further reassurances to the House on the issue. I suspect that he probably can.
I am particularly encouraged by one further passage in my hon. Friend's letter of 17 February, in which he confirms that the Bill maintains the application of a rather abstruse but nevertheless living and relevant measure
Column 357which is on the statute book at present--the Doncaster District Drainage Act 1929. The Act has enormous significance in the present context. My hon. Friend explained to me in the letter that he wrote that the Doncaster District Drainage Act will maintain its present incarnation and applicability as a result of the Bill. The Bill provides for that remote but important and living statute to continue in place.
The relevance of the Doncaster District Drainage Act 1929 is that, even before nationalisation in 1947, it provided that provision had to be made by private owners to contribute towards a sinking fund so that moneys were readily available for mining subsidence remedial work. The fund was made up of contributions from the private operators, but placed in the hands of the then river authorities and administered by them. Needless to say, a river authority which had control over a sinking fund wasted no time in dipping into its resources if private operators defaulted or failed to come up with the necessary remedial finance.
As my hon. Friend the Minister has already implicitly accepted the precedent for requiring a sinking fund to be made available and for that fund to be placed in the hands of people other than the mining operators, such as the Coal Authority or a river board, I hope that something analogous can be provided, or at least considered sympathetically, so that we have a little pot of gold already in place which can be drawn upon and contributed to by the new coal operators and licence operators as and when a crisis of insolvency occurs. I hope very much that the Minister will be able to reassure us along those lines.
Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) : Looking around the Chamber, I see a small corps of veterans of the Coal Mining Subsidence Bill of 1991, who will recall the circumstances and the context in which we had to pass the Bill--a threatened dissolution of the House. Our desire to make sure that we got the Bill on the statute book prevailed over even the greater scrutiny that it deserved.
Therefore, a second opportunity to consider this fundamental issue must not be passed over lightly, especially as three years down the road have been three years of more heartache, concern and in some cases despair for my constituents in the villages of Edwardsville, Treharris, Quakers Yard and Trelewis. The fact that the Coal Mining Subsidence Act 1991 has not given the relief or assistance that one hoped and expected brings one back to examine the provisions in this Bill.
I draw one conclusion from the experience of considering the 1991 Bill. As much as we might put provisions in the Bill about the role of the Coal Authority, a subsidence adviser or whoever else, absolute powerful rights of remedy to householders affected by subsidence are the best and most effective way of dealing with subsidence. I remember many of the debates we had about trying to strike a balance between the interests of British Coal and the worries and concerns of householders. Reflecting on those debates, I have come to the conclusion that that is not the premise from which we should start ; we should start from the premise that a householder affected by subsidence
Column 358has an absolute right. After all, he or she is an innocent party. That householder bought the house in the hope that it would be a wonderful home in which to invest savings and borrow against. But suddenly a bulge may occur in a wall and cracks may appear in the paths --the house takes on a mini-Los Angeles earthquake look--and a house which was a family's pride becomes a nightmare. That is not an exaggerated description of the plight of householders in communities such as mine and those of hon. Members on both sides of the House. We are asked to explore the interests of the householder versus the interests of British Coal. It should not be a balance of interests ; it should be fundamental that the householder, as an injured party, has a right to a speedy remedy under the law which is able to be enforced as speedily and effectively as possible. I do not think that the 1991 Act provides this and, as hon. Members have said, I do not think these essentially confused arrangements will provide it in the future.
Since the Second Reading of this Bill the Minister and his Department have published draft subsidence regulations, and we thank him that they have been made available and can therefore be taken into account in debating the provisions of this Bill. I eagerly picked up the draft regulations in the hope that they would represent the sort of remedy that the affected villages in my community have been seeking.
I turned to the provisions on which I spent considerable time--as I think hon. Members opposite did--in an attempt to get a decent provision to cover the situation of blight as a result of subsidence. Blight is one of the most dreadful consequences of subsidence. A dwelling can possibly be repaired in due course, but it becomes unsaleable for a considerable period, perhaps for ever. Blight is a deadly consequence in communities affected by subsidence. I looked through the blight provisions because I had fought for them during debate on the 1991 Bill--I think that we had a clause inserted into that Bill from which these regulations derive. I hope that the Minister will tell us that these are only draft regulations and that he will be willing to listen to what I have to say, because there are two fundamental problems with the draft regulations about blight.
First, he is tying all of the blight provisions to the use of stop notices : either a stop notice has to be issued or there has to be the probability of an issue within a nine-month period before the blight clauses of these regulations can come into force.
In the case of Edwardsville, Treharris, Quakers Yard and Trelewis, very few stop notices have been served. Therefore, that provision would not trigger the blight provisions in the regulations. I think the issue and acceptance of a damage notice would be a more effective trigger for the blight provisions.
But I find the second subsection of the provisions most objectionable because it challenges the householder's right to serve a blight notice. Subsection 2(c) of the blight regulations states that
"the principal reason for the sale is a change in the owner's personal or family circumstances such as would be likely to cause any reasonable owner to decide to sell the owner's interest in the dwellinghouse."
What a curious continuing provision. The householder whose home is blighted --and has been demonstrated to be blighted by the fact that he has been unable to sell it at the
Column 359normal market value--will have to describe to British Coal or to a newly licensed mining company that it is his personal family circumstances which compel him to sell. Why should the householder have to do that ? Why should he or she not just say, "I need to move ; I wish to move"? Why does there have to be a detailed examination of the personal family circumstances of a householder before he or she can exercise the blight provisions under these regulations? Since the operation of the 1991 Act, there have been one or two dreadful cases where people have had to go on their hands and knees to British Coal and beg it to accept blight notices, describing the most painful personal circumstances. Why should people who are innocent parties and who have done absolutely nothing wrong but who have the sad misfortune to own a home under which British Coal have made a hole have to explain, as set out in the draft regulation, the circumstances which compel them to decide to move ? All they should have to do is express a desire to move and prove that the home has been blighted because it is unsaleable at the normal market price. The provision of arbitration concerns me also--again, we pinned a lot of faith on this aspect in the 1991 Act. The Minister has provided a draft regulation on arbitration. I have found it very difficult to persuade people to go to arbitration. They are widely concerned that what we hoped was an informal, helpful, basically cheap and quick and speedy means of resolving the problems of disputes will be just as much a Goliath versus David confrontation as land tribunals and high courts have been in the past. People fear that British Coal will come along with its top advisers and override the values and concerns of individual householders who, under the draft regulations, have to carry their own expenses of going to arbitration.
As far as this Bill is concerned, what will be the role of subsidence advisers, the Coal Authority or the arbitration assessor in upholding, technically and professionally, the case on behalf of the householder concerned ? Previously it has been an unequal battle when a dispute has occurred to try to get redress by going to tribunals or to the High Court.
Of course, no legal aid is available to householders in the case of arbitration. That is not what we wanted ; we hoped that arbitration would be simpler, more effective and cheaper than previous methods. What provisions contained in the Bill, in the clauses that we are trying to amend, or in the draft regulations issued by the Minister will ensure that the individual householder is well equipped and capable of making sure that his or her case is heard properly, both professionally and technically, without incurring the costs that have been associated with other forms of procedures for resolving disputes ?
I am sorry to delay the House but, on behalf of householders who thought that the 1991 Act would be something of a salvation and who have found subsequently that that was not so, I reiterate that we once again have an opportunity to provide a real remedy. Above all, we have the opportunity to give people real rights which enable them to stand up and overcome the grievances they justly feel when their homes are affected by subsidence.
In Edwardsville, Treharris and Quakers Yard it is ironic that much of the relatively recent subsidence occurred because British Coal decided to close the pit and mined it with great speed in the last 12 months. The people of those communities do not believe it is a coincidence that large-scale subsidence occurred in the last 12 months of the pit's operation. We are left with no jobs and no pits, only
Column 360a legacy of subsidence. If we do nothing else, we should ensure that householders have proper and full remedy under the law.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) : Concern is being expressed by hon. Members of all parties about the provisions for subsidence. As the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) said, the present situation and the past record are not perfect, but we are in danger of fragmenting liabilities in a way that could add to individuals' difficulties.
If every licensee is responsible, action will have to be taken against a licensee and only on the basis of assurances that we have received from the Minister will there be a fallback on the Coal Authority as a last resort. For many people, that may be far too late if they have become involved in litigation or are unable to enter into litigation but, because they have not done so, the Coal Authority says that they have not exhausted all the possibilities and that it is therefore not minded to represent their interests. The issue needs to be clarified.
I must press the Minister on one matter. There is no commercial reason for the Government to resist the proposed improvement. The Library notes refer to the Financial Times of 13 January, which reported :
"Prospective purchasers of coal mines are warning the Government that privatisation of the industry is being severely hampered by requirements that the new owners of mines must take on historic liabilities for subsidence. The liabilities could amount to hundreds of millions of pounds . . . Potential purchasers say that past liabilities may outweigh the likely business benefits of mining coal in some of the five areas for sale".
That is clearly a factor which one understands the Government might feel they have to take into account, but I am sure that the Minister will agree that it cannot be a justification for resisting an improvement to the Bill which would ensure that there was a clear, fair and straightforward means for individuals in particular to get redress. Does he agree that, in most cases, it would be much better if individuals went to the authority and that the authority dealt with the matter and undertook to recover the money or indemnify itself against any private owner ?
In order that the Minister does not misunderstand me, I stress that I am not suggesting that private owners should not be liable for subsidence arising out of their own workings--of course they should be, and even perhaps for related cover. However, it is clearly not acceptable that those affected should find that a series of barriers are making it even more difficult for them to obtain redress. For many people, going to one single authority and knowing that it is the authority that will sort out the matter is surely the best way to proceed. That authority can then undertake to recover whatever is required from those who are held liable in law, whether it is the private or the historic owner.
I shall not delay the House, but I am sure that the Minister will accept that the issue is causing concern to all parties. Although the assurances that he has given go some way to meeting that concern, they do not appear to have satisfied Opposition Members or, indeed, some of his colleagues.
Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe) : I shall be brief, because I agree with all that has been said. Most of us who have been dealing with constituency subsidence claims for a long
Column 361time know how difficult it can be to prove a case. We are all familiar with insurance companies, including the reputable ones which operate on behalf of local authorities, who are quick to take the cover, but with whom it is difficult to push through a claim. I stress the problems of insolvency caused by subsidence, which is not an exact science. I remember when the Huthwaite pit, just over the way from my constituency, planned a new seam and estimated that there would be about £1 million-worth of subsidence. In the event, there was £9 million-worth of subsidence, which was enough to close the pit because it was uneconomic.
One can imagine that private purchasers, running fewer mines and therefore unable to offset one against the other, could get into serious difficulties if a non-exact science can lead to greater liabilities than they are able to cover. As the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) said, the cost should never be borne by innocent victims.
Mr. O'Neill : Amendment No. 29 would ensure that the expertise and resources to handle subsidence claims should be the responsibility of the Coal Authority, which we consider to be the appropriate regulatory body. It is essential that claimants have a simple procedure for the presentation of claims, which is the purpose of amendment No. 28.
The subsidence adviser will be empowered to handle all stages of a claim, allowing him to act fully as the claimant's agent. That will not only protect the customer but standardise the form of claims, thus easing the administrative load on the authority and the operators. It will also reduce the opportunity for fraud by directing claims to an individual responsible to the Secretary of State. It is important that such channels and expertise are available in this critical matter, and we believe that it would be worth the Minister considering the issue again. We discussed it at some length in Committee, but there is widespread concern that a fragmented industry, with a diminished Coal Authority, will not necessarily provide the best protection for the legitimate claims of people who will have enough to worry them without wondering how long the claims will take and to whom they will be speaking.
Ms Walley : I wish to impress on the Minister how important it is that my constituents should be able to get proper compensation for the subsidence that has already occurred. The House should be aware that, under the present system, it is almost impossible to get compensation when it is needed. Whatever the Government might have done to introduce the arbitration scheme, I can give details of tens of constituents who have not been able to get compensation from the arbitration system. Unless the Minister takes on board the amendments that we have tabled, there will be even less accountability, and it will be even more difficult to get over all those hurdles to obtain proper compensation for damage that has been done to people's properties.
Anyone who lives in a home where there is subsidence, who walks down the sloping floor, who sees the cracks appear in their property, who has to live with all the uncertainties and with the realisation that they cannot sell
Column 362their home because it is blighted will agree with the amendments. The Minister must go away and return with greater assurances than we have had. I wish briefly, on behalf of my constituents, to make that point to him.
Mr. Hood : I am anxious because the provision in the Bill about who will be liable for subsidence damage has a hairy-fairy quality. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) mentioned cracks in the walls. I have seen houses that were split down the middle. I have seen houses collapse.
A colliery in the Mansfield area, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), was closed principally because the miners were then held responsible for the cost of subsidence. Sherwood colliery was closed because they could not afford to take the cost of subsidence off the backs of the miners who were producing coal at a profit, but against whom the costs of subsidence were being levied.
It is important that the Minister qualifies who will be responsible for the cost of subsidence damage. We are speaking about not a few thousand pounds, but literally millions of pounds. I hope that the Minister qualifies that before we have a vote.
Mr. Eggar : We have had a full debate, covering three areas. One area is the adequacy or otherwise of the Coal Mining Subsidence Act 1991. The second area is the procedure for claims under that Act. The third area is the financial position of the protection for any claims. I will try to deal rapidly with each of those areas. I understand the worry of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) about the operation of the 1991 Act. It is fair to say that that Act marked a considerable step forward, and that both sides of the House welcome it as such. I have taken careful note of the arguments that the hon. Gentleman made about the operation of the draft subsidence regulations. They are indeed in draft, and I will consider them carefully when I read the record. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney was a little unfair when he discussed arbitration. We are trying to make the regulations governing arbitration as simple and accessible as possible. The householder will have to pay only £50. The other costs will be met by the responsible person--the company or the Coal Authority. The arbitrations should be conducted on documents alone, except in exceptional circumstances, and there will be no scope for technical experts, expensive lawyers and so on to present evidence. We shall keep it, admittedly, as rough and ready as we can, but that is in everyone's interest.
I do not think that the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney referred to the fact that we have introduced in the Bill the concept of the subsidence adviser, who is there to "hold the claimant's hand", if the claimant wishes. We are keeping the arbitration system separate from the role of the subsidence adviser--that is important--but the subsidence adviser could, under certain circumstances, if he felt it appropriate, write to the arbitrator and give a view, but it would not in any way substitute for the view of the householder.
Mr. Rowlands : I followed closely what the Minister said, and I am grateful for his explanation. Does that mean that the subsidence adviser will be able to engage on behalf
Column 363of the householder, or himself have available to him, professional technical advice if British Coal comes in heavy-handedly with professional technical evidence ?
Mr. Eggar : No. The subsidence adviser is there almost as a layman to help the individual through the system, to make the householder's approach to the arbitration system more user-friendly. We are not trying to build in a great deal of technical expertise through the subsidence adviser. That is not necessary, and the purpose of the arbitration system is to do away with it.
The second main area covered in the debate concerned the whole procedure for claims. My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) was kind enough to refer to the fact that we have made draft regulations available. In fact, we have also made available to the Committee a draft of the leaflet to be circulated to all householders. I see that an Opposition Member has a copy. I quite understand why some hon. Members feel that the Coal Authority should be the recipient of all claims. This point was made in particular by the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce). There would be very considerable danger in such an arrangement. The Coal Authority will be located in Nottinghamshire. It will be remote. If the hon. Gentleman has in mind a sort of post box system, that would simply introduce an additional layer of bureaucracy. It would be an additional and remote hurdle. I am sure that most hon. Members would rather have a very clear duty placed on coal mining companies to deal directly with subsidence matters.
It is in everyone's interests that we should try to build up a relationship between local operators and the people whose properties will be undermined. Such a relationship would bring the problem home in a much more realistic way. I should have thought that, coming from the party to which he belongs, the hon. Memberber for Gordon would appreciate decentralisation.
There will, of course, be a right to go to the Coal Authority if there was any uncertainty about where a licensed operator was functioning. An application will go to the Coal Authority. If it is not the authority's responsibility, there will be a duty to pass it on to the relevant mining operator.
I hope that I have dealt adequately with points concerning procedure.
The major concern expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby, whom I thank for his kind remarks, and by my hon. Friends who represent Nottinghamshire constituencies, arises from the spectre of a situation in which a private operator is not able to fulfil its financial obligations in the case of subsidence.
My right hon. and hon. Friends, like hon. Members on the Standing Committee, spent some time discussing the words "so far as practicable". In legislative terms, those words express a very strong duty. The words that are normally used in such circumstances are "so far as reasonably practicable", which my right hon. and hon. Friends will immediately recognise as weaker.
Why do we use "so far as practicable", and not impose an absolute duty ? The reason is very clear. When an absolute duty is imposed, the person on whom it is imposed has to cover every conceivable circumstance--such as earthquake or some form of nuclear attack. Such an onus would be quite disproportionate to the actual liability
Column 364that an operator is likely to have to deal with. Thus, we shall not have to look at the substance of the obligation that is placed on the operator.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby is right to assume that the Doncaster Area Drainage Act 1929 will be maintained. That legislation, rather than the 1991 legislation, will apply. We shall use the powers under clause 65 of the Bill to deal with this matter. My right hon. Friend also asked whether a hard cash fund is needed. Clearly, the form of financial security is a matter for the Coal Authority. An assessment of the financial strength of an operator will take account of whether security is necessary and, if so, in what form. We contemplate the possibility of the Coal Authority's being able to accept bonds, and the Bill expressly contemplates the possibility of a trust. The point is, however, that, in all circumstances relating to the financial strength of the operator and the likely contingent liabilities, the authority will have to form a judgment and satisfy itself that the financial obligations will be there.
Let us suppose that--notwithstanding all the provisions in regard to such matters as financial security--that security, having been called, is not adequate. In that unlikely circumstance, the Coal Authority would first establish whether anyone else wanted to take on the area of responsibility- -in other words, the mining enterprise.
If that proved impossible, the authority would probably decide that the responsibility should be withdrawn from a company that would in effect be bankrupt, and should return to the authority. I seem to remember that such circumstances are covered in clause 37. The authority would then become responsible for all subsidence claims. 9.15 pm
Mr. Hood : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister is standing with his back to the Opposition. I am sure that he feels comfortable in that position, but I should be grateful if he would address the House.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : The Minister should address the Chair, actually --and he was looking at me.
Mr. Eggar : I apologise to the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood). I shall fix him with a steely glare for the remainder of my speech-- through the Chair, of course. I must say that I am not entirely sure how I can convey the steely glare through the Chair.
Mr. Hood : Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have now had an opportunity to take a look at the Minister, and I withdraw my objection.
Mr. Eggar : For that small mercy, many thanks.
I hope that I have been able to deal with the various points that have been made--albeit in staccato fashion, because of the shortage of time. I repeat that I understand that this is a sensitive matter for many hon. Members and their constituents, but I am confident that we have built in the right form of security. I hope that, on that basis, the amendment will be withdrawn.