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Column 693If he had listened, he might have learnt something. Regrettably, yet again, our words have fallen on stony ground.
The amendment is important because of the Government's past practice. When they have relied on voluntary agreements, those agreements have failed. If we are to believe the Government, the environment is vital, not only to this country, but to the rest of the world. Here the Government have the opportunity to practise what they preach. The onus is on them to introduce legislation to bring improvements.
Don drainage in Doncaster, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) knows, was the result of extra money being paid by local people. If subsidence occurs and interferes with that drainage, there will be an impact on the environment. Pollution is bound to follow. I suggest that, for once, the Minister listens to Labour Members and accepts the amendment.
One of the problems is that the Government propose to leave the matter to the voluntary sector. Mine owners in the past did nothing to ensure that we had a healthy environment. Given that, the Minister must accept the amendment if we are to ensure that future generations will have a proper environment.
Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck) : Does my hon. Friend recall that in his area, as in mine, spoil heaps in mining areas have been an important issue in the past 20 to 30 years ? Happily, Governments have taken action to deal with spoil heaps. The majority of spoil heaps, certainly in my area, were created in the days of private enterprise, but over the past 30 years the Government have had to accept responsibility for dealing with the problem, which they did not create. We face a similar problem now. The industry was nationalised from 1947 until now. Many of the water pollution problems need to be dealt with by the organisation that owned the industry- -the British people, through the British Government.
Mr. Redmond : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the point about spoil heaps, which is a valid one. The coal tip at Yorkshire Main pit caught fire. The pollution caused was not water pollution, but air-borne pollution which caused serious environmental health problems for a number of my constituents downwind of the fire. The Minister should look at the past voluntary agreements, which have not worked, and he should also consider other privatisations carried out by the Government. Leaving matters to the voluntary sector has not worked, so I suggest that the Minister accepts the amendment. Let us move forward to a better future.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : A number of my hon. Friends will recall that my interest in the environment of the coalfields, especially the South Yorkshire coalfield, is long standing. When I entered the House in 1970, I made a fuss about the disgusting condition of our main rivers in South Yorkshire--the Rother, the Dearne and the Don--which were in the lowest category and were little better than open sewers. The Yorkshire Rivers Authority gave a pledge that our rivers would be brought to recreational standard by the mid-1980s. In the mid-1980s, the authority promised that they would be brought to a decent standard by the year 2000. I now wonder whether that standard will be reached.
The reason for my doubt is that many of the streams that feed into the rivers were maintained to a more decent
Column 694standard than the rivers they joined, because of the work of the National Coal Board and the South Yorkshire mines drainage unit. Those bodies controlled the discharge from abandoned pits. I remember spending time with Mr. Ditchfield and his colleagues at the South Yorkshire mines drainage unit, which was based in my constituency, and being lowered to the bottom of a shaft of a colliery which had closed in 1873. The shaft had to be kept open for the purposes of pumping. Unfortunately, because of British Coal's economising, the mines drainage unit was closed and the responsibility was passed to Silverwood colliery in my constituency. But Silverwood colliery is about to close, and the industry will be privatised. The responsibility will accrue to the Coal Authority, and we have not had any assurance that the Coal Authority will have the resources, or the legal power, or the interest, or, in fact, the size of membership and staffing resources, to enable it to do its job. The Minister is somewhat less enthusiastic about the privatisation of the mining industry than he was when the Bill was first produced. The Minister for Energy (Mr. Tim Eggar) indicated dissent . 4.15 pm
Mr. Hardy : Oh, no. When the Government wanted to privatise the pits, they were a great deal more enthusiastic and cheery. But, as the months of consideration went by, they began to realise the scale and liability which would accrue when the public sector's interest diminished-- the liability of the legacy of hundreds of thousands of men who suffered or may suffer the consequences of industrial disease. The liability to the environment may be greater than that. It is such a great liability that I do not think that any private insurer would offer a policy.
It is little use the Government and our local authorities devoting resources and giving priority and a great deal of attention to promoting our economic revival as a result of the closure of our pits if not enough is done to prevent the devastation which can follow in the absence of a proper exercise of responsibility. All my hon. Friends who have intervened- -a great number already have--will have surely drawn the Minister attention's to the fact that the Coal Authority must have the capacity, in terms of law and resource. It seems essential and, in the interests of those areas affected, the amendment must become part of the Bill.
I hope that, in replying, the Minister will give us that assurance and also give the coalfields of Britain--and former coalfields--the assurance that the authority will have the capacity to exercise properly the responsibilities that the Minister and his colleagues will have placed on it.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : The amendment stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook). I share with him, and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), the constituency responsibility for Breich water and the Almond. One needs only to go along the Almond now, which, incidentally, used to be a clean river because it was cleaned up, and one can see bubbles of iron oxide. There is a real ferruginous pollution problem. I do not believe in muscling in on the Committees of other Bills on which hon. Friends have worked extremely
Column 695hard, so I shall content myself with one question, when I have the Minister's attention. I shall ask the question when I have the Minister's attention.
Who is responsible ? Lengthy correspondence with the Secretary of State for Scotland and talking to Scottish Ministers has not identified who is responsible for the cleaning up of the Almond and Breich water. It is a simple, straight question. If those in the Box cannot answer it, I would hope to receive a letter from the Department.
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) : The arguments have been well rehearsed over the past months while we have considered the Bill. However, even at this late stage, it is important to press the amendment for the people who live in the coalfield communities, because, over the years, they have lived with pollution and dereliction. People who live in coalfield villages and towns have high aspirations for their children and for their environment. They have seen enormous dereliction over the past few months.
Over the past year, the Nottinghamshire coalfield has been laid waste by a closure programme. The people of Nottinghamshire now want to see the environment lifted, and the amendment would provide a way of doing that. It would secure the future over contaminated land and pit spoil heaps.
The people in Nottinghamshire want to see Sherwood forest come again. They have an ambitious scheme to create a new community forest--a forest that will be planted on the spoil heap. Some of the spoil heaps may pass into the ownership of voluntary bodies. The people of Nottinghamshire do not want to be left with commitments that they cannot meet. Assurances have been given by the Minister and his colleagues in another place, but the amendment would secure that future.
The amendment also brings to a head the issue of mine water, which has been pursued relentlessly by my hon. Friends. At Annesley, all the water from the western side of the Nottinghamshire coalfield and from Derbyshire is pumped up. Annesley colliery is now closed. Discussions are now going on between the National Rivers Authority, British Coal and other partners about its future.
Annesley colliery lies next to Newstead village--next to Newstead Abbey, the home of Lord Byron. It is an area where local authorities, led by governing borough councils, have made major changes. They are lifting and building the environment. Unless the issue of mine water is resolved--and resolved quickly--there will be real problems. The amendment before the House would secure that future. It would put some real commitments in the Bill.
I echo the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). The Minister has talked about the importance of the Coal Authority. Now that the Coal Authority has a chairman--and I understand that a chief executive will be announced shortly--it is essential that it is properly resourced and has adequate personnel to tackle these issues. At present, the feeling in coalfield communities is that the Coal Authority could be a lame dog--a dog that will not bark. Our amendment aims to back the Coal Authority and ensure that things happen in coalfield communities to give them a better future. In the past, the Minister has argued--indeed, he may well use the same argument this afternoon--that the amendment would wreck the Bill and cause difficulties for the private sector. I do not believe that that is the case,
Column 696because my discussions with the private sector suggest that it is anxious about privatisation. Private sector companies are anxious about the liabilities that might have to be picked up. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that he is talking to private sector companies about that issue.
We want a better environment for coalfield communities. Even at this late stage, the amendment should be accepted.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : This is an important amendment. I hope that the Minister is prepared to take it on board. He will recall that the issue was raised time and time again during the long Committee stage.
At one point, I explained to the Minister the situation that has arisen in my constituency as a result of the River Don being polluted by a colliery that closed down in the latter part of the 1960s. That is something which the community opposed over a long period, but it has been unable to get anything positive done. That could easily be the situation with many of the collieries which have already closed, and those which will close in the future, unless we have a similar amendment.
I draw the Minister's attention to a situation that occurred only a few weeks ago in my constituency. Once again, it illustrates the sort of situation that we may face time and time again in mining communities. The Worsbrough reservoir is fed by a beck that runs down the countryside from Silkstone. It is also added to by many abandoned mine workings.
One of those mine workings, the Stafford mine, which closed down many years ago, is the low point for many of the collieries around. It has pumped into that beck some 1.5 million gallons per day. In October 1993, British Coal decided that it would stop the pumping operation. That has had a catastrophic effect on the reservoir, because one of the local sewage plants also feeds into the reservoir. That is adding immensely to the problems in the reservoir which have been experienced by local anglers.
I wrote to the Minister on the issue. When Lord Strathclyde discussed the amendment in the other place, he made the point that problems such as that at Worsbrough reservoir would become high priorities. Therefore, it is essential that the Minister tells us today whether he is prepared in circumstances such as we face at Worsbrough to give a direction that the pumping should be restarted. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he will give a direction that the pumping should be restarted at the Stafford colliery to alleviate the problem in Worsbrough reservoir. I should also point out to the Minister that this morning we received a letter from the National Rivers Authority stating that it was prepared to spend £35,000 on aeration equipment to try to alleviate the problem. However, that will by no means ease the problem, because the reservoir is also the source of the River Dove in Yorkshire. As the reservoir becomes polluted, so does the River Dove. It is essential that we have aeration equipment, and that pumping is restarted at the Stafford mine.
I hope that the Minister will tell us that he is prepared to accept the amendment, and that pumping operations will be restarted at the Stafford colliery.
Column 697environmental liabilities. When we are talking about flood water, it is easy to see what the specific problems are. The particular problem to which I wish to refer is now becoming commonplace throughout coal mining areas, particularly in Stoke-on-Trent, North. It is the issue of mine shafts and adits. The problem is not quite subsidence, and is not easily visible. It seems to me that the problem has come about as the result of a specific disagreement between British Coal and the Law Society.
Some time ago, British Coal had an obligation to say whether there was a former mine shaft within 5 m of a property, although 5 m was never specified. It seems that there is now a voluntary agreement, under which, if there is a mine shaft within 20 m of a property, British Coal has to disclose the fact. Only since the property market has started to move again and the new arrangement came into force have we begun to understand the extent of the problem in Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire. Many houses currently on the market have been blighted simply because British Coal has said that there is a shaft within 20m of the property.
In his reply on the overall environmental liabilities, I should like the Minister to deal with the issue of mine shafts. How is it anticipated that the costs of searching for mine shafts will be met ? Anyone who bought a house before the new agreement came into force had no idea that British Coal would come up with the information that there was a mine shaft within 20 m of the property. I understand that the cost of carrying out the search amounts to about £800. I might add that the search is a fairly dangerous undertaking.
When we talk about transferring costs from British Coal to the new authority that will take its place, we must make certain that, at the heart of the legislation, we ensure that the costs of identifying former pit shafts, adits and so on has been met. People--many of whom have given their lives to the coal industry--must not find themselves with a property which they cannot sell, simply because they fall within a 20m rule. I can well imagine the Minister saying that the matter might in some way impinge upon the regulations which relate to subsidence, but the technicality of it is that those mine shafts are not quite the same thing as subsidence.
We need an undertaking from the Minister today that, if we do not get the matter sorted out as we reach the final stages of the legislation, he will consult the Coalfield Communities Campaign and local authorities to make sure that individual home owners do not have to meet those enormous costs. They must not be prevented from moving on and selling their homes. We are talking about contaminated land and about a legacy of environmental dereliction, and I want some firm assurances from the Minister today in that respect.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : I apologise to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) for not being here when he opened the debate, as I was on my way back from an engagement in my constituency.
As hon. Members have said, this matter has been argued in this place, in Committee, on Report and in the other place. I say to the Minister that the issue between us--which is addressed in the Opposition amendment tabled by the Labour Front-Bench team and signed by my hon.
Column 698Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and myself on behalf of our party--is whether the undertaking given in the other place is written into the Bill, and is not left as mere words uttered in debate in Parliament.
The key issue is to make sure that the liabilities are perceived to be liabilities which do not lead to risks arising unintentionally on people who cannot bear them. Do the Government have a clear policy about the issue in relation to their privatisation of energy ? For example, is the attitude evidenced by the amendment in the name of the President of the Board of Trade intended to be a precursor to a similar attitude in relation to the nuclear industry ? What is the Government's policy towards risk arising from environmental liabilities on privatisation ?
The difference is simply that the President of the Board of Trade and the Government have came to the House and asked us to accept something which says that they think that the risk should arise "except where it is reasonable to believe that that person . . . will be able to finance their discharge."
That is the only time when the transfer of liabilities will carry that guarantee. It is an objective test, and the Minister will know the difference between one and the other is the difference between an objective test and a subjective test. The "reasonable to believe" test introduces a characteristic that is a lesser protection than that which was put into the Bill in the Lords.
People clearly want the best protection against environmental risk, and I hope that the Government will accept that there must be the best protection. Whether the Government think that protection should reside with the Coal Authority--as is argued from the Opposition Benches--or somewhere else, I hope that they are consistent with what they always say elsewhere, and that the best environmental protection will be guaranteed.
Therefore, if that is the case, there is no argument but that the amendment passed in the Lords should be the amendment sustained. The Government amendment, which weakens that provision, should not be adopted by the House.
Mr. Skinner : My view is that, if the Government do not do anything about water pollution, it will be a disaster waiting to happen. It might not happen next week or even in a couple of years, but in three or four years somebody will ask what we were doing in Parliament to allow this to happen.
My mind goes back to Aberfan. We had a nationalised industry at that time which meant that we could do things in an emergency. But Aberfan was a disaster, and people asked what was going on. As everyone knows, they piled up all the stuff on top of a mountain and more than 200 kids in the village school were swamped. Fortunately, because it was under public ownership, a direct grant for clearance programmes could be set in process. We had such a slag heap removed in Clay Cross when I was on the local authority.
Under private ownership, the potential owners of 19 or 20 pits will not carry the can for such problems. When Silverhill colliery next to my constituency was closing, I was told that every pump used to pump water out of the pit cost £5,000 a week to run. That is a lot of money, and I think that Silverhill colliery has two pumps. All my colleagues and others well versed in mining procedures know that that amount can be multiplied countless times in every coalfield, given the amount of
Column 699pumping that went on. In Derbyshire, for instance, there are no pits left. I believe that one pump is operating at Creswell colliery for the whole of north Derbyshire. It is laughable.
The net result is that the water is rising at Bolsover and a land slip has already occurred. Six houses have been demolished. British Coal and the Department of the Environment say, "It's nothing to do with us." But six people have lost their houses and many more are placed in jeopardy. We want £1,500,000 from the Government so that the county can start a drainage scheme. That kind of thing will be the pattern in every coalfield.
Some people may argue that that is relatively clean water, but what happens in areas where the water is polluted ? Those of us who are old enough remember the days before public ownership. I would have my earhole belted because I used to jump over little streams which we used to call "ochre water" because they were a dirty yellow colour. The water poured off the tips of privatised pits. That is the sort of feature that will occur in future.
The Government send people to Rio and all those environmental conferences, but do not care tuppence about the environment when it comes to the test. They have dogmatically pursued their privatisation scheme without thinking it through and now they have a problem. Remarkably, in a series of votes today, Labour Members of Parliament will support amendments on the side of country landowners--they are involved in trying to save the property, whereas we are doing it because we know that it is morally right--while the Tories will go into the Lobby to attack their own people. The issue is not just about playing partisan politics. It is about the morality of allowing all that pollution to take place, as my hon. Friends have said over and over again.
Nuclear power gets £1.3 billion. We think that it is for production purposes, but the Government tell us that it is for
decommissioning--for what happens after the production process. Is what we are discussing the same as the nuclear argument ? We are asking who will clean up the mess once the production process has been completed. The decommissioning of the coal mining industry is the same argument.
We are told that the Government must find up to £22 billion in the next several years to decommission all the nuclear power plants. We are not asking for that kind of commitment today. All we are asking is that the Government come to their senses and understand that there will be major environmental pollution in every coalfield in Scotland, Wales and England. It is time that they accepted the morality of the amendment, which will go a little way towards resolving the problem, not for today or even next week, but for generations to come.
Mr. Eggar : I am sure that the House will not misunderstand me when I say that this is a re-run of a re-run of a re-run of a re-run of previous debates, and that there is a fundamental difference of view between Conservative Members and Opposition Members.
It is straightforward. Opposition Members believe that the Coal Authority should be responsible for all liabilities, even liabilities that arise in areas that are owned by private sector coal companies. Conservative Members say that the
Column 700Coal Authority should have responsibility for all liabilities except those that arise in areas that are the responsibility of the private sector.
We debated the issue in Committee, at the very beginning. At that stage, I was able to put several hon. Members' anxieties in perspective, at least, and I firmly established that the Coal Authority is responsible in the vast majority of cases. It will, in practice, be an exception for a private sector mining company to have responsibility ; the exception will be where it has purchased the assets.
Much as I enjoy the contributions of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)--this time as ever--I think that he did not recognise that fundamental position.
Mr. Bell : I am grateful to the Minister for telling us what he told us in Committee, but he is still missing the point--that, where there is no licensed operator, in relation to deep mines from which coal is no longer extracted, the responsibilities and liabilities of British Coal end in limbo.
Mr. Eggar indicated dissent .
Mr. Eggar indicated assent .
Mr. Bell : The Minister nods. The Opposition are arguing that it is not in the Bill. If he says that responsibility lies with the Coal Authority, why should he not now accept our amendment ? Then we shall all know that it is in the Bill and that it is the responsibility of the Coal Authority, and we can all rest reasonably in peace.
Mr. Eggar : It emphatically is in the Bill, because the Coal Authority, under clause 73, takes over the ownership of all unworked coal and coal mines, including all abandoned mines. I can therefore assure the hon. Gentleman that it is absolutely clear that, where the private sector does not own the assets, the liabilities and such assets as there are are transferred to the Coal Authority. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) seemed to me to be identifying the core point, which is about the resources--funding and manpower--that will go to the Coal Authority. I attach much importance to that, and I have very much taken on board the points that he made.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) mentioned a specific, important matter in his constituency, and I will write to him about that.
Mr. Dalyell : Scottish law is slightly different. The highly competent Lothian river purification board and its officials, such as Mr. William Halcrow, do not know where responsibility lies. Will the Minister give the undertaking that one of his expert senior officials in Scotland will sit down with the board's officials and consider what is an urgent ferruginous pollution problem ?
Mr. Eggar : As the hon. Gentleman makes a specific request of that nature, I undertake to pass on his anxieties to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, and to ask that the problem be investigated at a senior level and that, if possible, a satisfactory outcome be reached.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) raised a specific point about mine shafts' interrelationship with the Law Society. It will become the responsibility of the Coal Authority, as I understood the thrust of her remarks, and I will ensure that it tackles that specific issue because I have not come across the specific
Column 701issue of "undiscovered" mine shafts before. I am grateful to her for mentioning it, and I will ensure that we follow that up. Finally, I think I signed a letter to the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) at the weekend. I am sorry that he has not received it, but, from memory, I think that active negotiation and discussion is going on between British Coal and Yorkshire Water Services Ltd. British Coal acts as agent for Yorkshire Water at present, and discussions are going on about the way that the issue should be handled. The hon. Gentleman should have my letter soon. I am sorry that he has not received it yet. I hope that that will set his mind at rest.
We accept the basic thrust of Lords amendment No. 1, although the precise wording might give rise to problems--it would introduce some uncertainty as to whether the Secretary of State had discharged the obligation. We have therefore proposed Government amendment (a). I understand that the proposer of the Lords amendment accepts that our amendment meets the fundamental point that he wished to address. I think that it is more precise, and I therefore hope that it will be acceptable to the House.
This is a familiar debate. I am sorry that I cannot be more forthcoming than I have been able to be on previous occasions. I am convinced that the Coal Authority will discharge its liabilities appropriately, and that the anxieties that have been mentioned by many Opposition Members have been
Ms Walley : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. May I make certain what he proposes in answer to my point--that he will ensure that he meets all those people who have expertise about the problem, and that we can have meetings to discuss the issues that I brought to his attention ?
Mr. Eggar : I cannot give the hon. Lady a firm pledge that I personally will be involved in the meetings, as I am sure she will understand. I am sure that my officials are aware of the matter, but I personally am not. I understand the origin of her concerns, and I will ensure that the matter is inquired into. If there are what I would call "loose ends" to it, I shall do my best to ensure that they are sorted out.
I hope that, with that assurance, the Opposition will withdraw their amendment.
Mr. Bell : I have no intention of withdrawing it. Clause 73, to which the Minister drew my attention, deals with interests, not obligations. It deals with coal that is in the pits which may be used again by the Coal Authority, but not the environmental liabilities about which we have spoken.
Question put, That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made :
The House divided : Ayes 203, Noes 282.
Division No. 273] [4.47 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Column 702Bennett, Andrew F.
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, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Corston, Ms Jean
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Eagle, Ms Angela
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Foster, Don (Bath)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Golding, Mrs Llin
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Khabra, Piara S.
Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil (Islwyn)
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)