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Ms Harman: You are not.

Mr. Heald: I have never claimed to be trained, but the staff are both trained and house-trained. They work to a detailed form, which they have to fill in with the information that is required by the fraud investigators. The form has been carefully constructed by the investigators to ensure that the relevant information is gathered. The investigators say that the scheme is working well and they are satisfied with it.

Mr. Frank Field rose--

Mr. Heald: I will not give way because I am short of time. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks whether the staff are temporary. There are some full-time staff who are not temporary and there are some who are. I am happy to say that they are good at what they do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North raised a number of points and he asked whether the social security database would have online access. In due course, it will and I agree that it will be necessary in the longer term to achieve that objective. We have asked the computer industry for proposals on a common core system. That point was also made by the hon. Member for Cambridge.

The hon. Member for Rochdale wanted an assurance that the Department would not sell on information received under the data matching process, and I can give her that categorical assurance. We have a long record of holding and handling sensitive information and keeping it confidential. She also asked what safeguards there would be for a battered wife whose husband worked for the Department. I hope that that is not a reflection on the staff of the Department who, by and large, would not welcome that example. Having said that, we expect to process the data at a single site and it will be held and handled in safe and secure conditions. We will take all necessary safeguards to ensure that only where a mismatch is found will staff become aware of the case for further investigation. We will limit the information to those who need it. She should also be aware that it is an offence to disclose information in these circumstances and that it can be considered gross misconduct within the Department.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West raised a number of points. I do not think that I can respond to them all, but I promise all hon. Members that I will write to them if I do not mention their points. He asked about the prosecution record for benefit fraud, and I can tell him that we have a 98 per cent. success rate where proceedings are brought and we will maintain those high standards. He asked if our data matching system will be able to cope with the new data from the Inland Revenue and other sources, and we are confident that it can.

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We shall not be using the contractor that he suggested, excellent though it is, because we shall be using BT Sintegra.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West asked us to ensure that the provisions in the Bill are not applied inappropriately to the right-to-buy provisions, and I can happily tell him that the Bill applies to benefit administration and benefit fraud and does not affect the right to buy. He asked about the Child Support Agency. Fraud allegations made to the CSA are passed on to the Benefits Agency for investigation, and the Bill does not allow us to pass information between the CSA and, for example, the Customs and Excise or the Inland Revenue. There should be no fears on that score. He mentioned mitigating the penalty, but I think that I have dealt with that matter.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon raised a number of issues, and talked about the tension between the need to detect and prevent fraud and the individual's right to privacy. We guard jealously the individual's right to privacy, but we believe that it is necessary and in the public interest to be able to match the information. A number of other points were raised which I will answer in correspondence.

I wish to respond to one or two points made by the hon. Member for Fife, Central on the Government's policy. It is a bit rich for the Labour party--which, after all these years, does not have a single idea on benefit fraud--to criticise the Government. When Labour local authorities were doing nothing, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State came forward with the tough package of incentives and penalties that has tripled the amount of housing benefit fraud that has been disclosed. The Labour party is tough on the one hand and tender on the other on benefit fraud.

In June, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) suggested that we should increase random blanket home visiting of claimants. Yet in August, the hon. Member for Fife, Central criticised our home visits and said that people who were totally innocent could end up being the victims of a visit by the DSS. One definition of a victim is a person suffering harm or death. Was the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury suggesting random blanket suffering for all? Of course he was not.

In March, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury told us that the benefit fraud hotline in Reading was innovative and that we should follow it--although, of course, it followed us. Yet in August, the hon. Member for Fife, Central was describing it as a snoopers' charter and talking about a civil liberties problem. Labour told us in 1992 that we should not overestimate the problem of fraud, and yet overstated it itself. Labour said that it would recover £310 million from landlords, despite the best estimate being that there is only £150 million-worth a year. No wonder Labour cannot make up its mind how to vote.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).

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Queen's recommendation having been signified--

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 50A(1)(a),

(1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of--
(a) any expenditure of a Minister of the Crown or government department incurred in consequence of the Act; and
(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money provided by Parliament under any other Act; and
(2) the payment into the Consolidated Fund of sums received by the Secretary of State in consequence of the Act.--[Mr. Knapman.]



'Report and Third Reading

3A.--(1) The proceedings on consideration and Third Reading shall be completed in one allotted day and shall be brought to a conclusion at midnight on that day.
(2) Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business) shall apply to those proceedings.'.--[Mr. Knapman.]




    That the Welsh Grand Committee shall meet at Westminster on Wednesday 4th December at half-past Ten o'clock and between Four o'clock and Six o'clock to consider the Matter of the implications of the Budget for Wales.--[Mr. Knapman.]

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Former Mine Shafts (Kingswood)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Knapman.]

10 pm

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise a subject of great importance to many of my constituents--the accuracy or inaccuracy of the Coal Authority's records of former mine shafts in Kingswood and Bristol. I am also grateful to the Minister for being here to respond to this important debate.

In a nutshell, the problem is that, in my constituency and throughout the rest of the area that once formed part of the Bristol coalfield, there is a lack of confidence in the accuracy of the Coal Authority's records of disused mine shafts. That lack of confidence is common among local solicitors, estate agents, mortgage lenders and the local authorities--Bristol city council and South Gloucestershire council. It is inevitable that Coal Authority records are incomplete and sometimes unreliable. Everyone appreciates that. After all, mine owners were not required to keep accurate plans of a specified scale until 1911.

The problem in Kingswood and Bristol is far more serious than that, however. There are numerous instances of the Coal Authority's advice on a site differing dramatically from that of a local private company, Bristol Coalmining Archives, which, as its name suggests, has an extensive archive of material relating to the former Bristol coalfield.

As a result, local solicitors do not rely on the Coal Authority when undertaking searches, but instead turn to Bristol Coalmining Archives for a second opinion, and they are doing so in increasing numbers. The company currently receives between 300 and 400 such inquiries from solicitors each and every month--approximately 4,000 a year. That is an astonishingly large figure, given the size of the former Bristol coalfield, and the figure is growing rapidly.

Moreover, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, on which I am pleased to serve, published a report in July on former mine shafts. One of the unanimous recommendations was for an independent investigation of the Coal Authority's archive of the Bristol area.

My purpose in raising the issue is to show the Minister why I strongly believe that the Government should act on the Select Committee's recommendation and bring to an end the distress and blight brought about by conflicting advice on disused mine shafts in Kingswood and Bristol. Not only are many properties being blighted unnecessarily, but thousands of people each year are being forced to pay for two mining searches when considering buying a new home. As I think everyone would agree, that situation is unacceptable, and needs to be sorted out.

I shall start at what, for me, is the beginning. Soon after the last election, as a new Member of Parliament, I was contacted by Mr. and Mrs. Hann of Woodyleaze drive, Hanham, in my constituency. They told me that, in April 1990, a big hole had appeared in their back garden. A local mining expert, Mr. John Cornwell, the managing director of Bristol Coalmining Archives, said that his records showed it to be a former mine shaft. British Coal, as it then was, said that the hole was not a mine shaft but a well, and denied all responsibility.

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My predecessor as Member of Parliament for Kingswood, Mr. Rob Hayward, took up the case, and subsequently passed on to me an extremely thick file, which makes it clear that he was most concerned about the fact that, despite strenuous efforts, the matter had not been resolved. I am extremely sorry to say that, more than six years later, John and Jacky Hann still have a hole in their back garden which Bristol Coalmining Archives says is a former mine shaft and which the Coal Authority says is not. As the House can imagine, the matter remaining unresolved for so long has had a devastating effect on their lives and health.

If that were one isolated incident, however tragic, it would not be sufficient to call into question the general state of the Coal Authority's records on disused mine shafts in Kingswood and Bristol; but it is not an isolated case. A few days after the Hanns first contacted me, I was approached by another constituent, who had had difficulties in selling her flat because a search with British Coal had shown that there was a mine shaft close to her home; a second inquiry by Bristol Coalmining Archives produced a report showing that that was not so.

Similar cases have been referred to me by constituents ever since. I soon discovered that the local authorities--Bristol city council, Kingswood borough council and Avon county council, as they were at the time--had all expressed concern about the accuracy of British Coal's records in the area, as had local solicitors, estate agents, mortgage lenders and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) and for Bristol, South (Ms Primarolo).

Following numerous meetings and discussions early in 1993, on 17 September 1993 the then chief executive of Bristol city council wrote to the principal private secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry:

The letter continued:

    "I am also aware that an approach has been made to the Law Society for a directive to be made to the effect that so far as the Bristol area is concerned solicitors should be permitted to make their search direct to Bristol Coalmining Archives Ltd and there should no longer be a requirement placed upon them to request British Coal to undertake a search."

The letter concluded:

    "It is clear that the groundswell of opinion is such that the matter cannot be overlooked and warrants a thorough investigation by a senior officer from your Department."

The letter was passed from the Department of Trade and Industry to British Coal, which denied that there was any problem.

A little more than a year later, on 24 October 1994, another meeting was called at the council house in Bristol. Attending that meeting were representatives from the three local authorities, British Coal, Bristol Coalmining Archives, the Bristol Law Society and the Law Society.

The minutes of the meeting, which were submitted to the Select Committee, show that Mrs. Pauline Holland of the Bristol Law Society said:

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The other Bristol Law Society representative present at the meeting, Mr. Ian Dunn, said:

    "There had been concern about the accuracy of the British Coal search and many solicitors saw the need to obtain other information locally. Clients were advised to pay for both searches."

As the Minister knows, earlier this year the Select Committee on Trade and Industry decided to conduct an inquiry into the problems caused to home owners by former mine shafts, and our report, entitled, "Former Mineshafts", was published on 17 July. Among other issues, the Committee considered the Coal Authority's records of former mine shafts, and identified a specific problem in the Kingswood and Bristol area.

It is interesting to note the written evidence to the Select Committee submitted by Bristol City council reiterated the problems that had been stated in the 1993 letter from its chief executive. The council stated:

British Coal and the Bristol Coalmining Archives--

    "have received conflicting answers . . . there have . . . been cases where one archive has said that a property is affected and the other has said it is not. There have been suggestions that some of the alleged shafts have been old wells . . . Concern about this is longstanding and crosses local authority boundaries. Householders, vendors, purchasers, estate agents, solicitors and mortgage lenders are all inconvenienced by the suggestion being made that they should make enquiries of more than one body, and all the uncertainty it produces for them when the answers from different sources are different."

The suggestion that the Coal Authority is wrongly identifying disused wells as disused mine shafts is supported by extensive evidence to the Select Committee submitted by Bristol Coalmining Archives.

The city council's evidence to the Select Committee is echoed by that from other local authorities--South Gloucestershire council and the former Avon county council. South Gloucestershire council lamented the lack of accurate information, and also stated:

Perhaps even more remarkably, it also stated:

    "Advice from the Coal Authority on any particular site has not been consistent over a period of time".

That is the opinion of the local authority--an organisation with a certain reputation in the area for being accurate when it gives evidence.

One might ask what local estate agents have to say about the current state of affairs. They, too, are rather exasperated. The Avon branch of the National Association of Estate Agents is chaired by Mr. Peter Brunt, whose business is in my constituency. He, too, submitted written evidence to the Select Committee, in which he observed:

I repeat, "fairly common practice"--

    "to purchase both reports and some solicitors . . . have more reliance on the coal search from Bristol Coalmining Archives than they do from the Coal Authority . . . In my opinion the best way to resolve

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    this unsatisfactory position is to have an independent review of Bristol's records held by the Coal Authority and any inaccuracies are identified and rectified."

How do local solicitors regard the situation? I have already referred to the recorded views of the Bristol Law Society, which has repeatedly expressed the concerns of local solicitors about the current situation. I am well aware of those concerns from my discussions with local solicitors. Given such overwhelming evidence, it is hardly surprising that the Select Committee unanimously recommended that there should be an investigation into the Coal Authority's records in Bristol.

However, in the Government's response to the Select Committee's report, they noted, perfectly reasonably, the skimpy memorandum submitted by the Bristol Law Society that cast doubt on the existence of the problem. The memorandum, penned by Mr. Kirby, included the comment:

I find that comment extraordinary. As I have shown, it is contrary to everything that the Bristol Law Society has previously said, and contrary to what everyone else has understood its position to be in recent years.

The Bristol Evening Post is commendably pursuing the matter with the Bristol Law Society spokesman Andrew Gregg. In an article in the paper on 12 November, Mr. Gregg was reported to support the call for an inquiry. Just over a week ago, I had a meeting with Mr. Gregg of the Bristol Law Society, and I thought it likely that a letter would be forthcoming before tonight's debate to clarify the society's position. I regret that it has not been.

There is abundant evidence that local solicitors believe that there is a problem. I have already said that, every year, local solicitors in Kingswood and Bristol make 4,000 inquiries of Bristol Coalmining Archives. Why are local solicitors going to the trouble, not only of undertaking a search with the Coal Authority, as the Law Society requires, but of consulting Bristol Coalmining Archives?

The answer is clear: local solicitors make the inquiries because, along with estate agents, building societies and other mortgage lenders, they believe that the Bristol Coalmining Archives' records are more accurate than the Coal Authority's. Some solicitors have told me that, if the Law Society changed its rules, they would stop using the Coal Authority.

I wish to comment on the scale of the problem--other than in terms of the 4,000 annual inquiries to the private company. I understand from Bristol Coalmining Archives that it has identified more than 100 sites for which the Coal Authority's records show one thing and its records show something completely different. Either the Coal Authority says that there is a disused mine shaft on the site and Bristol Coalmining Archives says that there is not, or vice versa.

I am not talking about the odd discrepancy, but about seriously conflicting advice on a large scale. The sample search of 18 properties referred to in the Bristol Law Society's memorandum--and in the Government's response to the Select Committee--is as much a mystery to me as the rest of the communication. But I should have thought that more than 100 incidents of conflicting records could not be dismissed as of no significance.

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Interestingly, local solicitors and local authorities were not the only people to seek assistance from Bristol Coalmining Archives. In his written evidence to the Select Committee, its managing director reported:

The Minister may know that that agreement has now been signed.

If the Coal Authority's records are adequate, why should the British Geological Survey be seeking the assistance of Bristol Coalmining Archives? I am not a mining engineer: I do not know who is right and who is wrong. I could not tell a mine shaft from a well if I fell down one, but I know that there must be a good reason for solicitors in Kingswood and Bristol to make 4,000 requests every year of Bristol Coalmining Archives, and there must be a good reason why the British Geological Survey has commissioned work on mining records from that same company.

Scarcely anyone with a professional interest in mining records in Kingswood and Bristol--local solicitors, councils, estate agents, the British Geological Survey--does not now use Bristol Coalmining Archives. Therefore, the case for an investigation into the matter is overwhelming, and I would not have spent so much time over the past four years working on the issue were I not convinced that it was clearly in the public interest for it to be sorted out.

I should be delighted if tonight the Minister agreed to the Select Committee's request for an independent investigation, as that would be the right thing to do. I appreciate that he may not be able to do that immediately--he may want to reflect on what I have said this evening--but I urge him to reconsider the matter seriously. I hope that he will agree to meet a delegation of interested parties from Kingswood and Bristol to hear their views at first hand.

One thing is clear: there is a problem--one that is recognised by anyone in the area who knows anything about mining records. The problem will not go away. It needs resolving, and it needs resolving quickly.

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