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10.19 pm

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Energy (Mr. Richard Page): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) on getting a slot in order to raise this important matter. Although I understand his concerns, I have to say that, if only life was as easy as the hon. Gentleman implies, he and I would be happy men. Life is, however, more complicated than that.

It may be helpful if I give a little factual background. The Coal Authority's database records some 150,000 coal mine shafts and mine entrances, and it is estimated that as many again are unrecorded. There is probably an equal number of entrances that are not connected with coal mining.

Of the coal mine shafts and entrances, the great bulk--over 90 per cent.--date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when records were a little sparse, as the hon. Gentleman would be the first to agree. Such structures were then relatively narrow, relatively shallow and, in fact, more akin to wells than to the mine shafts of today,

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which are several metres across and hundreds of metres deep. The majority of those shafts give no trouble whatsoever.

To put the issue in proportion, let me point out that the Coal Authority responds to about 120 calls a year relating to mine shafts, and only about 100 relate to coal mine shafts--100 calls in connection with perhaps 300,000 recorded and unrecorded mine shafts and entrances. Of the 20 remaining calls, I am sure that one or two related to some of the stone mines in the Bath area that have given trouble in recent times.

We must be fair and not over-dramatise the problem. Some shaft collapses are really nothing more than a dip in the ground and damage to property is exceptional. The Coal Authority has had only seven cases reported under its surface hazards procedures in which a mine shaft was found to be either partly or wholly under a building; and, in fact, only one building was actually damaged.

The Coal Authority now issues approximately 250,000 mining reports a year. Those give information on past, present and future surface and underground coal mining activities, and outline the geological lines of weakness, subsidence damage claims and working rights. Since 1947, solicitors have been asking for such reports from the National Coal Board, British Coal and now the Coal Authority as part of the process of buying and selling land. Until 1989, whether to do so was left to solicitors' judgment, but, since then, the Law Society has introduced a code of good practice and provided a standard questionnaire.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government impose no requirement on anyone to obtain a mining report on any property that is being bought or sold. The reason solicitors act as they do is to provide a service and to ensure that their clients are given the full facts. In going to more than one source of information, I would suggest that they are simply covering every available option.

It has been suggested that there should be a single provider of mining reports--which would be an attractive proposal, if life were that simple. However, questions arise if that single supplier is not the Coal Authority. If we are to have a different supplier in the Bristol area, we must recognise that other providers might wish to offer a service elsewhere--in fact, there could be competing requests in a single area.

I understand that the questions posed by the Law Society questionnaire and the answers given in the Coal Authority mining report go wider than the topics covered in the report provided by Bristol Coalmining Archives. Would solicitors and their clients be content to have a single report that was narrower in its scope than those that were previously available from the Coal Authority? I rather doubt it.

In practice, any alternative supplier would have to acquire from the Coal Authority data that it did not already have and constantly consult the authority to update its data. As we know, the Coal Authority constantly updates its records, as more information becomes available. As I have said, this is not just a matter of mine plans; we are also concerned with information about subsidence claims. Providing and updating data is a service for which the authority would have to charge to meet its obligation to cover its costs.

The Coal Authority could not just hand over the plans. The authority holds many plans on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive. Because of that health and safety

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aspect, the Coal Authority has arrangements to allow access to plans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That is a requirement of the Health and Safety Executive. Any alternative custodian of those plans would need to guarantee a similar arrangement. Would other custodians be prepared to incur that cost?

We also need to consider the level of charge. The Coal Authority's financial duty is simply to recover its costs. Would we therefore need to control the charges imposed by an alternative supplier?

For all those reasons, we believe that the Coal Authority should continue to provide the service throughout the coalfields of Great Britain, whatever additional local service may be available.

Mr. Berry: Will the Minister acknowledge that I am not arguing for an alternative source of information to that of the Coal Authority? I am arguing for an investigation into the well-known fact that the Coal Authority records in the Bristol and Kingswood area are radically different from the records of another organisation. I do not care who has the final records, but surely that needs to be sorted out.

Mr. Page: I shall address that in a moment or two, provided that time is with us.

As I said, the Coal Authority database derives from many thousands of plans, many prepared in the 18th and 19th centuries. Having visited and looked at the records, I know that they were produced on a medium that is now in poor condition and costing an enormous amount of money to restore and bring up to date. If at any time the hon. Gentleman would like to visit the Coal Authority records, I am sure that I will be able to lay on a day trip for him.

The transcription of those plans by British Coal was done by experts, many of whom had detailed local knowledge, and that continues to be the case under the Coal Authority. It is therefore difficult to envisage what could be done to improve significantly the quality of the data on which those plans are provided.

In the context of Bristol, I remind the hon. Gentleman of the evidence given to the Trade and Industry Select Committee by the Bristol Law Society. The hon. Gentleman quoted several discrepancies and differences but, as we know from the Trade and Industry Select Committee:

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That is from the Committee on which the hon. Gentleman serves, so it must be right--

Mr. Berry rose--

Mr. Page: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, time is not with us.

Having said that, the Coal Authority recognises that its database is incomplete, and wishes to add to it.

The authority is also drawing the Committee's report to the attention of other bodies that are known to hold relevant information, urging enhanced co-operation. That should be the right way to proceed.

In the case of Bristol Coalmining Archives, we agree with the Trade and Industry Select Committee that there is no basis on which a company or other private sector body can, or should, be compelled to make its archives available to the authority, but perhaps it and the Coal Authority will be at least able, to a degree, to offer a complementary, not competing, service. I have asked the Bristol Coalmining Archives again to consider making available information to the authority, and I look forward to its response.

This is a specific local matter, and the hon. Gentleman said in effect that the Coal Authority should have the responsibility for precisely locating and determining the condition of the mine shafts within a distance a building. He in effect asked for the records and so on to be checked and brought up to date. The Coal Authority estimates that the costs attached to such an exercise would be between £3,000 and £4,000 per unit just to investigate each site, and perhaps another £6,000 to £8,000 per unit for a site where treatment was judged to be necessary.

In 1995, the Coal Authority prepared about 6,000 mining searches that include reference to disused mine shafts. We believe that, if the shafts were treated by the authority at the request of the property owners, the number of searches would increase substantially. On that basis, the cost of simply locating shafts would run to many tens of millions of pounds, and would substantially increase if treatment were necessary.

Mr. Berry: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Page: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I have only 30 seconds to go.

Whatever our differences, it is clear that these are important issues. They affect many home owners in Bristol and Kingswood and other areas covered by coal mining in the past, which make use of the services provided by the Coal Authority. The data are not perfect, but that is due to--

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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