Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Surely one of the most shocking figures concerns the pay rises that the administrative staff have been awarded. They have totalled 7.1 per cent. over the past two years, which is 1.5 per cent. more than the teachers are receiving. Were not our Conservative colleagues on the county council right to oppose that increase?
Mr. Dunn: The Conservative group on KCC put forward its own budget proposals, which could have funded the teachers' pay increase, restored the cuts that the Lib-Lab pact has made, and given Kent the familiar robust financial competence that had existed for more than 100 years. If it is a matter of the people or of Kent county council, it is our job, duty and pleasure to back the people every time. 1.41 pm
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) on raising this important subject. I can do no better than deal with the ill-informed comments of the signatories to early-day motion 708, which was tabled last night by six hon. Members, none of whose constituency is within 100 miles of Kent. Indeed, most are in the north of England. I shall deal with their specific points.
Column 1014First, the signatories claim that 1 per cent. had been provided by the Lib-Lab pact for the teachers' pay increase in Kent. What they fail to state is that, simultaneously in the education budget papers, the Lib-Lab pact cut 1 per cent. from schools' delegated budgets, thereby taking them back to zero--in other words, no increase. Only last week, the Lib-Lab pact took a leaf out of the Conservative budget proposals to fund a 1 per cent. increase by drawing down from the over- provided GM schools common formula provision.
Secondly, in my speech on 7 February, I thanked the Government for a 2 per cent. increase in Kent's external funding--that is, revenue support grant and the business rate allocation--from £754 million to £770 million for KCC and Kent police combined. The Lib-Lab pact has claimed a £5.5 million cut. It does that by bringing in other specific grants, and including one year's figures but not the next, to produce the cut that it wishes to allege. That is quite bogus. One can do anything if one is prepared to massage figures. In fact, I could create a massive funding increase for Kent county council by adding in the windfall of £20 million that KCC has saved from lower interest rates and £10 million from land sales, £30 million of which, incidentally, it has already blown.
Thirdly, I refer to conferences. The early-day motion mentions the Great Danes conference at a four-star hotel, which cost £30,000. The signatories are very coy about the other KCC conferences, which cost the Kent council tax payer 10 times as much. The Great Danes conference was addressed by, among others, Roy Pryke, the most effective politician of the left-wing troika running Kent education, the others being the Lib-Lab co- chairs, who have been notably hiding behind Roy Pryke's skirts as the flak has rightly flown of late. Another speaker was Professor Ted Wragg, a consistent opponent of Government education policies. He has said:
"The free market plans in curriculum and testing will restore and extend the stigma of premature failure."
Professor Wragg has also said:
"As the league table philosophy begins to predominate the less able will increasingly be seen as cripples."
He further said:
"Statethink was unknown in this country until 1988. It will be the norm in future."
I cannot help but think that that party political stuff, if repeated at the conference, was no help at all. It was a Lib-Lab political fun day, but it wasted vast sums of council tax payers' money.
Fourthly, the signatories to the early-day motion speak of cuts in the county council administration due to the departure of further education colleges. How do they know? As we have heard, the Lib-Lab pact has mysteriously left staffing numbers out of the budget book for the first time ever in Kent. All that we have to go on are the gross staffing numbers of the central organisation, which have risen from 14,694, when the Lib- Labs came in, to 15,556 today, an increase of 862.
In fact, as has been mentioned, with the departure of further education colleges, 88 GM schools and the careers service and with contracting out, administration costs and staff numbers should have fallen sharply. In practice, they have not. The county auditor, Price Waterhouse, has reported that
"This will not be sustainable."
Column 1015I contend that millions of pounds, which are tied up, could have gone to our school budgets.
Fifthly, the signatories to the early-day motion claim that there are £1.8 million savings in central management costs. I have looked at the details. The Lib-Lab pact claims that £600,000 will come from income generation proposals, but no details of that are revealed, and that a further £416,000 is saved from cutting contingency funding. In other words, £1 million of savings is bogus. I could even further reduce the original savings figure of £800,000.
So much for the early-day motion. My hon. Friends from Kent, in early-day motion 710, were right: the Lib-Lab Members' arguments are as remote to Kent as they are to their own constituencies.
Mr. David Shaw: On the point that there were no staffing numbers included in the budgets that were put before Kent county council, is my hon. Friend aware that the council's accounts since the Lib-Labs have taken over have not been signed off by the auditors and that a number of people have raised questions about those accounts? Is he further aware that the accounts contain no information about directors' remuneration or the chief executive's remuneration? We live in an age of openness, supposedly, and the Labour party is trying to encourage openness, but much information about the levels of staffing and bureaucracy in Kent is not available.
May I finally put to my hon. Friend the point that
Mr. Arnold: My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) seems to make the point that the Lib-Lab pact councillors do not have a clue about how to run a vast organisation. We are talking about our children's education and an organisation that has a turnover of more than £1 billion a year.
The debate has the elements of a tragedy. The Lib-Lab pact has underfunded our schools, slashed adult education, and hit discretionary grants, school transport and the youth service. It is all so unnecessary. I cannot make up my mind whether it is due to the breathtaking incompetence of the Lib-Lab pact or political malice to incite ill-informed Government-bashing. It is probably both. In a cavalier fashion, the Lib-Labs first tried to gag the Conservative KCC alternative budget, then they voted it down. That budget would have fully funded teachers' pay, protected the schools budget, and reversed cuts in adult education and the other services that I mentioned. Why can Conservatives on the county council do that? It is because they, the Conservative county councillors, have years of experience in managing that vast organisation. They have produced a realistic budget with the front line as the priority. It is a tragedy, because education in Kent has been making so much progress. In 88 schools, parents and governors have already opted to become grant-maintained, and I shall cite three rapid examples. St. George's comprehensive school in my constituency has a chairman of governors, Joe King, who is a Labour party supporter. But in his enthusiasm for grant-maintained status, he said:
"GM schools are so much cleaner and tidier looking".
Column 1016He has also said that extra money is available because schools do not have to support central services and can buy what they need, and that the culture is not dependency based, but results from the self-confidence that comes from recruiting a good team and enabling it to seek the best for the school in its central task of teaching and learning.
The Northfleet school for boys is in the strongest Labour ward in Kent, yet John Hassett, its headmaster, has said:
"The freedom from KCC petty interference, and its politicians in Maidstone, who have far less awareness of local needs and of our pupils, has allowed this school to set its own local strategy--we are now a real community school".
The results for that high school have improved so that 20 per cent., rather than the previous proportion of 10 per cent., achieve five grade Cs and above.
Lastly, in Southfields school, a high school with a difficult catchment area, the redeployment of resources has improved its performance so that, whereas before it became grant-maintained 1 per cent. of its pupils achieved five GCSEs and more, 8 per cent. achieved that goal last year, and the school expects the percentage to double this year.
Those educational advances are what the debate in Kent should be about. Either the Lib-Lab pact on Kent county council could not run a whelk stall or it is using the children of Kent as a party political battering ram. Which is it?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Robin Squire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr.Dunn), who has done a service not only for his constituents but for everyone living in Kent, in drawing the attention of the House to the problems that he has identified within that county. He was eloquently backed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), who rightly took the opportunity to demolish just about every word in early-day motion 708, and also by the presence of and the interventions by my hon. Friends the Members for Dover (Mr. Shaw), for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). [Interruption.] And, of course, by the presence of several more of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman).
I hope and trust that the wise words uttered by my hon. Friends will be widely read after the debate and will be digested by their constituents. Understandably, by taking a significant amount of time, my hon. Friends have left rather less time at my disposal, but I do not complain on that score because the quality of their contributions merited full and frank exposure.
I shall begin by commenting on the general issue uppermost in the minds of many parents and teachers--the education budget. The first aspect of education expenditure about which everyone in the House must be clear is that Kent county council, like every other local authority, is responsible for setting its own budget and for deciding its own priorities between and within services. It is the council that has the final say on how much is spent on education and how much on other services.
It has been alleged elsewhere that Kent has been forced to cut millions of pounds from its education budget for the forthcoming financial year. But there is no reason why
Column 1017that should happen. Kent's education standard spending assessment will increase, and under the capping rules it will be able to spend more in 1995-96 than it is spending in 1994-95. In total, Kent will be able to spend more than £955 million--nearly £1 billion--on all its services.
So where does the talk about cuts come from? The county council is not cutting what it is actually spending; it is drawing up a shopping list of additional spending, then cutting what it would ideally like to spend if it could buy all the items on the list.
I know that Kent schools, like schools in other areas, will be concerned about the teachers' pay award. The Government have accepted that award, subject to consultation, on the recommendation of the independent schoolteachers review body. The review body acknowledges the fact that financial provision has been set on the basis that pay increases should be offset or more than offset by efficiency gains and increased productivity.
Of course I acknowledge that the award will place local authority budgets under pressure. Ministers have made that clear in recent weeks, and I reiterate it from the Dispatch Box today. But local authorities are large, financially complex organisations, and they have a variety of means at their disposal to realise the efficiency gains needed.
To draw a fairly obvious parallel, the Government expect the Further Education Funding Council to make efficiency gains of 5 per cent. over the coming year. That will be tough but we are confident that the council will make it, and we are entitled to look to local authorities to examine their budgets in a similar way and to learn to live within them, prioritising appropriately.
Schools and parents will want to ask the county council other important questions. How much of its total budget does the county intend to spend on education? What proportion of its schools budget will it delegate to schools? I shall not bandy comparative figures about, because that would be tantamount to telling the council exactly what it should do. But I can say that it has some way to go to catch up with what many local education authorities are already doing on both those fronts. Governors are entitled to look to local authorities to give priority to front-line services such as schools, and I hope and trust that Kent county council will do that. My hon. Friends, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham, moved on to the general question of grant-maintained schools. As he is well aware, devolving power to institutions is one of the central themes of our education reforms. Our commitment to devolution is not the product of ideology or of some esoteric theory but is based on the commonsense principle that giving more power to managers who are closer to the customers is likely to produce a better service.
Mr. David Shaw: While he is talking about the devolution of power, and the way that that can happen with grant-maintained schools, will my hon. Friend congratulate St. Edmund's school in Dover, which opted out of Kent county council control, became grant-maintained and has
Column 1018now increased the number of its teaching assistant staff by six to provide more teachers in the classroom? It needed no additional resources to do that.
Mr. Squire: My hon. Friend has graphically, in one sentence, explained precisely the sort of reason why grant-maintained schools are so popular. Of course I join him in congratulating that school and many other grant-maintained schools, especially in Kent, where the concept of self- government has taken off so strongly. As has already been said, half the secondary schools in Kent are now self-governing.
The aims of our policy on grant-maintained schools are clear. They are to raise education standards in GM schools--
Mr. Squire: I hear what the Opposition education spokesman, who has just joined us, says--but another of our aims is to encourage LEAs to be more responsive to the needs of the schools that they continue to control. For both those aims, the signs are promising. It is clear that the grant- maintained option, combined with local management, has prompted LEAs to switch from a control to a support mode. There is also clear evidence that GM schools are achieving better results than their LEA counterparts and, not surprisingly, that they are popular with parents.
Sadly, ever since the change of control in Kent county council, the LEA has made it clear that it does not support the policy of encouraging grant- maintained schools, selective schools or city technology colleges. I understand that Kent has decided to freeze building maintenance, other than essential health and safety work, for schools that are balloting parents on GM status. If that is so, it is unjust. GM status is aimed at extending choice for parents and allowing them to decide on the way in which their schools should be managed. It is morally wrong that when they are offered that choice, their school is discriminated against, especially when it is the pupils who suffer.
Perhaps there is some confusion in the minds of the members of the Lib-Lab pact in Kent. Two weeks ago, the Daily Express reported that the leader of the Labour party was studying plans to allow all state schools to opt out of council control. I have news for the leader of the Labour party, which I am willing to give today, free of charge. That plan is unnecessary--the opportunity already exists. If the Labour party could, in the words of Lord Wilson, "take their tanks" off the lawns of schools up and down the country whose only crime is wanting to run themselves, there would be a large increase in the number of grant-maintained schools. That would be popular with parents and with teachers. It would also be popular with a growing number of Labour and Liberal Democrat activists, including Members of Parliament. My hon. Friend made a passing reference--
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise a problem that has existed for some time, but which is raising its head a little more. That problem is stythe coming from old mine workings in Northumberland. I might add that Northumberland is one of the oldest coalfields in Britain, and there are thousands of miles of underground roadways in Northumberland, and also in Durham, where mining has taken place.
Stythe is a common oxide which eats up the oxygen in air. It is not methane, which is a poisonous gas which kills quickly. When I worked in the mines, we called stythe blackdamp, and it is very dangerous. The problem occurs throughout Northumberland, not just in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) are in the Chamber, and I am sure that they have stories to tell as well. The problem arose in a big way in 1985 due to the closure of the last remaining colliery on our side of Blyth, and began when the pumping of the water at the colliery stopped. All the people concerned with stythe in mines have buried their heads in the sand, and nobody has wanted to take the responsibility. My local council had to take British Coal to court to try to get it to do something about stythe. It did --as a matter of good will--but then said that it had no responsibility, because the areas concerned were not its responsibility.
Perhaps the Minister can answer this question. Who is responsible for the old mine workings? It seems that the pits below the old mine workings where some of us worked are now filling up with water for the first time in years, and that is pushing the stythe up into the workings near the surface. The enormous pressure of the water coming in slowly over a period is pushing up the stythe.
I received a letter this morning from Mr. R. Robertson, who was a ventilation engineer with the National Coal Board and with British Coal. He wrote to say that he had seen me on television making a statement, and that I was right. Mr. Robertson is now retired. He said that the situation will get worse due to the rising water coming into the workings where the pumps have been switched off. He was an engineer who began working on the problem in 1988. He mentioned the Pegswood site, where he was involved in an advisory capacity.
Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck): Is my hon. Friend aware that there is evidence that stythe is under some houses in Pegswood? The problem arises because of the good neighbourly attitude adopted by British Coal, and now by the Coal Authority. I have just spoken to Castle Morpeth council, and I was told that any costs incurred in surveying the problem in the borough will fall on the shoulders of the local authority. Would my hon. Friend like some funding to be made available to deal with the problem by carrying out research and by providing a monitoring system throughout the county?
Mr. Campbell: I could not agree more. Mr. Robertson's letter goes on to say that stythe is a serious matter, and it is getting more serious as time goes by. He has raised his concerns with me, and I am pleased to be able to put them to the Minister today.
Column 1020As I have said, the rising water is pushing stythe up the old workings. Where the strata is loose, the stythe could find a path anywhere.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): The hon. Gentleman will know of the tragic death only a few weeks ago of Donald Tollett, who was overcome by gas fumes at Widdrington station in my constituency. He had gone there with a young child to prepare feed for a horse. The gas escaped from mine workings through an old drift. The hon. Gentleman will know, as I do, that there are old drifts and drift entrances all over the county. Does he agree that they must be carefully monitored if we are not to have a repeat of that terrible and tragic incident?
responsibility? The Coal Authority has now said that the problem is not its responsibility, but it must be someone's responsibility. We need a survey to be carried out, because the position is getting worse. Where pits have been closed and pumping has stopped, the water is rising underneath and is pushing the gas up. It could come through anywhere. We do not know where, as some of the old workings are 100 years old and are not on any charts or maps.
Mr. John Cummings (Easington): In my constituency we have 12 mines, and Seaham Harbour is a town founded on three mines with perhaps nine pit shafts. My village of Murton was founded upon Murton colliery, which has three large pit shafts, and that area is due to be reclaimed for a housing development. Does my hon. Friend have information that the Government now no longer agree with the "polluter must pay" principle? Does he think that mining communities which have suffered from dirt, filth and noise for 150 years must now stand the cost on their council tax to carry out surveys of what remains of redundant coal sites?
Mr. Campbell: That is the thrust of my argument. British Coal said before that it would do that as a matter of good will. It said that it would put a fan in where it was needed, and possibly do some grouting here and there. But it would not accept responsibility. I want to refer to what happened in Cramlington at the same time as the man died in Widdrington in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. The incident was serious enough for the police, mines rescue and environmental health people to be called out. What appears to have happened--it has happened once before--is that the fan did not pull in the gas. There is another argument there, because we discovered following the incident that the fan there had been contracted out from one mining company to another mining company. We do not know who has got the contract. We know that British Coal has given the contract as a matter of good will, but it still will not accept responsibility.
Has the contract been maintained properly? There was a high level of gas in houses in the area on that day, as atmospheric pressure was light and allowed it to come out of the ground and into the houses. At the environmental health meeting, it was said to be a fairly serious gas leak.
Column 1021We have found out that the nearest seam was only 15 m below the surface where the houses were built. There is only 2 ft of clay, which is a good barrier to gas. Stythe will not get through clay, but below that is porous sandstone, which the gas will get through--as an ex-miner, I am well aware of that. We found that some of the sewerage and waste disposal pipes were dug into the sandstone and that there was a crevice under the pipe--a path along which the stythe could travel to the manhole cover, up the pipe and into the house. People experienced great difficulties because they could not strike a match in the house or light the gas if the pilot light went out. They had no central heating. Hon. Members will understand the enormity of the problem. It has happened before, but it is happening more often because the water level is rising in the old mine workings, where we worked many years ago, and is pushing the gas up. As the workings are only 15 m below the houses, we can grasp the seriousness of the problem.
The more the pressure builds up in parts of Northumberland, the more the gas will leak and the more we will want an early warning system. I am not an engineer, only a politician, and I do not know what can be done. I initiated this debate because the problem needs to be aired. Too many people are burying their heads in the sand. There has already been one death and I am sure that the Minister will agree that we do not want any more.
If it is true that the problem is getting worse, the Minister has a responsibility to issue some sort of statement and to say whether the Government are trying to get some action or to have the areas of Northumberland where there are problems surveyed. I am afraid that it is our legacy. Unfortunately, Northumberland is one of the oldest coalfields in the country. The problem is there and it will not go away, so we need to tackle it. We need advice and we need mining engineers. I am sorry, but if it is going to cost money, the Coal Authority will have to take responsibility. Mine workings do not belong to anyone but that authority--I do not know about 100-year-old workings, but I think that the authority took over responsibility for old mine workings, so it is still up to the authority. That responsibility does not belong elsewhere.
Environmental health officers have told me that since 1987 we have had 29 gas warnings in Blyth Valley. I do not know about Castle Morpeth, Berwick or other areas. We have had 29 scares in our area and the number is increasing all the time. Usually, it happens in spring or autumn, when the atmosphere is light and allows the gas to come out of the ground. That is okay if it happens in the middle of a field, but unfortunately, if there are houses or an industrial site, the stythe can find its way in and obviously it can kill. The symptoms are easy to overlook. One feels fluey, tired and nauseous and wants to lie down and sleep. One lady did fall asleep on the couch. She was lucky to be awakened by one of her family. She was lying on a low couch and the stythe was well above the average and reached couch level. Perhaps she would not be here if she had not been woken. That just about sums up the seriousness of the problem and I hope that the Minister can come up with some answers.
Column 10222.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): I thank the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) for setting out thoroughly the problems facing parts of Northumberland, which arise from stythe gas emissions predominantly from old coal mine workings. He has shown the particular concern that we all feel, not only for the plight of his constituents but for those in other areas who may be affected. We also heard a little about them.
I join the hon. Gentleman in offering my condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Donald Tollett whose death he mentioned. Unfortunately, he lost his life in February as a result of stythe gas emission.
Blackdamp, as stythe is also called, is a mixture of
oxygen-deficient mine gas--predominantly carbon dioxide. As the hon. Gentleman explained, it is known as stythe in Northumberland. Blackdamp and firedamp, or methane, have long been a concern in coal mines. There have been a number of disasters in coalfields throughout Britain and elsewhere in the world as a result of those gases. Much effort has been spent by mine operators and the regulatory authorities to reduce the risk to miners, but that research effort has been focused primarily on improving the safety and efficiency of underground coal mining operations. More generally, much of the attention has been focused on methane, because it is explosive, rather than on carbon dioxide.
As the hon. Gentleman knows and has explained, carbon dioxide is an insidious source of danger. It is colourless and odourless, but is an asphyxiant and is toxic. Breathing becomes difficult in air containing 3 per cent. of carbon dioxide and slight headaches may be experienced. At 10 per cent. by volume, headache, palpitations and breathing difficulties occur and can lead to unconsciousness after about one minute of exposure. In addition, carbon dioxide has a greater density than air and, as he said, that means that it can accumulate readily in confined, poorly ventilated places, forming a layer at floor level into which the unwary may stray without warning. Since it is not generally obvious why the initial victim has become unconscious, rescuers are often put at risk, and it was fortunate that the recent event in Northumberland did not claim more than one life.
Problems of mine gas emissions are by no means restricted to Northumberland. Indeed, mine gas incidents have been recorded in all the major coalfield areas. Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained the Government's general approach to considering them.
A "Review of the significance of natural contamination to planning and development" was carried out for my Department by the British Geological Survey. One of a series of reports which are to be published shortly by the BGS is entitled "Natural methane, carbon dioxide and oil contamination: relevance to planning and development". It deals with the relevance of natural strata and mine gas emissions in the overall context of surface gaseous hazards and concludes that the most significant actual and potential occurrences of surface methane and carbon dioxide emissions from mines are in areas of shallow coal mining.
The report also concludes that the relatively small number of recorded mine gas emission incidents suggests that the hazard is relatively minor and of local significance compared, for example, with the extensive
Column 1023problems associated with mining-related subsidence or the gas problems associated with landfill sites. Individual instances can cause severe and sometimes expensive or life-threatening problems, however. The report recommends further studies of the importance and surface impact of gas emissions from abandoned coal mines. Further to the BGS recommendation, research is under way on "The planning response to methane and other gases from disused coal mines". That research is being undertaken for my Department by Wardell Armstrong and aims to establish the role of the planning system in reducing hazards due to gas emissions from disused coal mines and to prepare a detailed framework of advice for planners, developers, land and property owners, insurers and others. The research is due to be completed later this year.
The research by Wardell Armstrong has included a technical review of mine gas sources, migration pathways and emissions. A study of a specific area, involving the gathering of all available data relating to the occurrence of mine gases and the mining, geological, and hydrogeological setting, has been undertaken at Gateshead.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): If the survey to which the Minister referred shows that extraction devices should be fitted to some of the mine shafts currently in my constituency, for example, is he telling the House that his Department is prepared to put up the money to have those devices fitted?
Sir Paul Beresford: The hon. Gentleman must recognise that the cause of the problem must be found before we look to the source of the solution. It would be appropriate for us to wait for the results of the research, which are expected later this year.
Mr. Cummings: Will the Minister make it crystal clear whether the Government still subscribe to the policy that the polluter must pay, whether it be for surveys or the installation of fans or other associated equipment necessary to drain polluted areas of toxic gases?
Current research and guidance will be reviewed to assess its relevance to mine gas emissions and key legal and planning issues will be examined. The hon. Gentleman has jumped the gun. Although that research is not yet complete, much of the basic data have been gathered and are currently subject to analysis and reporting. Some interesting results are becoming evident.
There may be little problem if the gas stays within an abandoned mine unless people enter that mine. In some cases, however, factors cause the gas to migrate from one place to another. Thus every mine gas incident requires three basic ingredients: obviously, an accumulation of gas within the mine; a migration pathway to the surface; and a triggering event.
Mr. Jack Thompson: The Minister was present when I said earlier that monitoring equipment is being installed in the village of Pegswood in my constituency because of an incident in December 1993. That equipment was provided by the local authority with some help by the Coal Authority on a good neighbourly basis. Does he
Column 1024recognise that, while all those useful surveys and research are going on, we cannot stick pieces of paper on the ground to prevent the stythe from coming up? What we can do is monitor the problem and, if an alarm goes off because oxygen levels have fallen to below 80 per cent., we can at least warn people. We need help in monitoring now.
Sir Paul Beresford: The hon. Gentleman may agree that the problem is so widespread, even though it occurs in isolated areas, that we need to understand it and find out where it is likely to occur before we move in that direction. That is the most constructive thing that we can do.
First, it is worth pointing out that carbon dioxide occurs naturally in soil and rocks and is generated by the oxidation of coal. The formation of stythe in old mines is a relatively slow process, but the gas is likely to be present in any unventilated or abandoned mine workings. Secondly, the processes and physical factors that may influence gas migration are varied. Those may include displacement of gas as water levels rise due to seasonal rainfall variations or the cessation of mine de-watering. Conversely, de- watering of a mine may allow gas to accumulate. The density differs between mine gas mixtures and air influence movements, as do variations in barometric pressure. Thirdly, the extent to which the mine voids are sealed off from the surface, for instance where mine openings have been capped or plugged, or if fissures in the rock are beneath a cover of homogenous clay, has an important influence. While any, or all, of these factors may be involved in a mine gas incident, a poorly ventilated space within which the gas may accumulate and which is entered by people is central to the existence of a hazard. However, it is by no means easy to define all the factors that lead to a mine gas incident because of the complexity of mined ground, which may contain numerous old workings at different levels. Some may have collapsed but others remain open. Mines may have broken through into neighbouring workings to aid ventilation or water control during working. Different levels are connected by numerous shafts and adits. Many old shallow workings and mine openings are unrecorded, as the statutory duty for mine owners to keep mine plans was not introduced until 1850 and the requirement to register abandonment plans was not introduced until 1872. For those reasons, it is also difficult to predict where mine gas incidents may occur, except in a general manner.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell: I have listened carefully to the Minister, who has given details of the gases and so on. But he has not touched on the nub of the problem, which is the possible loss of life. I explained the dangerous position in Blyth Valley. We must try to eliminate that, but the Minister has not yet dealt with the matter. He must give assurances to my constituents and those of my hon. Friends that nobody else will die as a result of those gases and that someone will come to our constituencies and put the matter right.
Sir Paul Beresford: I am trying to explain the difficulties and why we need the research. I realise the urgency, which is demonstrated by the fact that, although the research is not yet complete, we are already working on the details that have come in. The full research is expected some time this year.
Column 1025The researchers, Wardell Armstrong, have collected details of mine gas incidents at 77 sites throughout the coalfield areas of Great Britain. About 25 of those related to carbon dioxide emissions, compared with about 72 per cent. which related to methane. As the effects of carbon dioxide emissions are less easily detected than those of methane, it is possible that more emissions occur than we recognise. Some 50 per cent. of the incidents were found to be linked, or probably linked, to emissions from abandoned mine entries. Another important means of passage of mine gas to the surface is through cracks in hard layers of bedrock.
Most mine gas incidents have been detected because of chance events. While there has been an increasing incidence of reports over the past decade, our preliminary analysis suggests that that may well be due to an increasing awareness of gas hazards and to monitoring of landfill gas, rather than a real increase in the occurrences of emissions from abandoned mines.
We must examine what may be done about hazards due to mine gas emissions. It is the responsibility of the developer to determine the suitability of land for a particular purpose. In particular, the responsibility and subsequent liability for safe development and secure occupancy rests with the developer and/or landowner. The local planning authority may treat the possibility of mine gas emissions as a material planning consideration and refer to that in development plans. In addition, the authority may wish to satisfy itself whether any land allocated for specific purposes in such a plan may be subject to mine gas problems. However, it remains for the developer to make adequate investigations including, for example, monitoring gas levels in boreholes or mine voids that may exist beneath a development site.
The building regulations require precautions to be taken to avoid danger to health and safety caused by substances found within the ground to be covered by a building. While those mechanisms control new development and changes to the use of land, there is also the issue of existing development, which may be subject to problems. The Occupiers' Liability Acts place responsibilities on the occupier of land for the safety of employees, legitimate visitors and trespassers on their land or premises. In addition, health and safety at work legislation places responsibilities on employers for the safety of their employees. The same legislation also places on employers a responsibility for maintaining a safe place of work at working mines, including the protection of the public.
Column 1026The Environmental Protection Act 1990 gives local authorities the means to abate a statutory nuisance and to recover the costs from the landowner. This could include escapes of gas which may affect surface properties. A major constraint on early action is, however, the limited extent to which it is possible to predict where and when the gas may escape.
Since the Coal Authority came into being, a single reporting procedure has been implemented irrespective of-- [Interruption.] I am trying to answer the hon. Gentleman. Since the Coal Authority came into being, a single reporting procedure has been implemented irrespective of where the responsibility ultimately lies. International Mining Consultants Ltd. has been appointed by the Coal Authority to deal with reported surface hazards. IMCL will investigate reported incidents thoroughly and will liaise with local authorities and emergency services as necessary.
Where the possibility of a problem is recognised, it is possible to take action in several ways. Mine openings may be treated so that gas is vented away from any existing or proposed structure. Precautions can be taken to prevent the ingress of gas into buildings by ensuring that confined spaces are ventilated adequately.
Caution needs to be exercised when carrying out new activities that may provide routes for gas to the surface, such as the drilling of boreholes. The Health and Safety Commission recently issued a consultative document in respect of minimum requirements for the health and safety of drilling operatives in the mineral extractive industries.