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25 Oct 2000 : Column 106WH

Free Miners (Forest of Dean)

1.27 pm

Mrs. Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): Mrs. Michie, I congratulate you on your appointment. I consider myself fortunate to speak while you are in the Chair.

I am pleased to have secured a debate on free mining in the Forest of Dean because it enables me, not only to further the case, but to put the argument on public record. Before setting out their case in this long dispute, I pay tribute to the free miners--the Davids standing against the might of the Goliaths of the Coal Authority and the Government--especially Ray Wright, their secretary, Don Johns, their chairman, Eric Morris, their president, Harold Powell, a fifth-generation free miner, Mike Howells, Gerald Haynes and Mike Jones.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe both for being here today to listen--and, I hope, to give some encouraging news on the issue--and for the time and commitment that she has already given. At my invitation, she kindly visited the Forest of Dean in July to see the Hayners Bailey colliery, where she met the free miners and gave a commitment to look at the issue afresh.

It goes without saying that the Forest of Dean is a unique area. It has its own rich heritage, with its own customs and privileges making up the personality of the community. Mine must be the only constituency that has free miners, verderers and sheep badgers--who are not animals, but men. There has been a history of mining in the area since ancient times, originally for ochres, then for iron, and, in the 19th and 20th centuries, coal. Our area is a recognised coalfields community, with moneys now flowing from Government to assist us in building up our poor infrastructure.

Free mining is different. Free mining rights are custom originating from time out of mind. They were first conferred by Edward I and were incorporated into modern law by Parliament in 1838. They are extended to males born within the hundred of St. Briavels who, when they have reached the age of 21 and have worked a year and a day in a coal or iron mine, become free miners. Those rights can now be inherited and are held by some females.

The Dean Forest (Mines) Act 1838 was the first in a series that culminated in the Forest of Dean (Mines) Act 1904, which series is now referred to collectively as the Dean Forest Mines Enactments. They preserve and recognise, not only the ancient rights, but the special exclusive relationship with the governor and his deputy. The governor grants a gale, which is a Crown award to mine a specific mineral in a specific, recognised area, in a specific, seam at a specific location, on terms.

All subsequent legislation recognised the special status and antiquity of free mining until the Coal Industry Act 1994. When plans for that legislation were announced, free miners were assured by the deputy governor that their situation would not be affected and that special provisions would be made in the usual way to protect their rights--in short, the deputy governor, who controls and regulates free miners, made it clear that their rights would be protected. There was a precedent in previous legislation: free miners were expressly exempt from nationalisation in the Coal Act

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1938 and the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946. They felt secure that a precedent had been set and that their rights would be protected.

In 1994, my predecessor, the then hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West, Paul Marland, took his eye off the ball and did not scrutinise the Bill carefully as it passed through both Houses of Parliament. He made no representations to Ministers that the Bill should refer to the Forest of Dean or free miners and their rights. Consequently, the free miners discovered too late that they had lost their rights. There was no consultation with the free miners before or during the passage of the Bill and its enactment.

On Monday, during the nominations for Speaker, the point was made that because parliamentarians make legislation that affects the lives of our constituents, we must scrutinise it carefully so that the implications of our actions are fully recognised and evaluated. That was not done in 1994 by the free miners' then Member of Parliament. I have checked with the Library and at no stage during any debates on the Bill or during its Committee stage was any explicit mention made of the Forest of Dean and free mining.

The 1994 Act gave specific powers to the Coal Authority. It imposed licensing requirements on all coal mining operations, except those performed by or on behalf of the Crown. It also conferred responsibilities concerning health, safety and subsidence. I understand that it expressly excluded the Coal Authority from responsibility for subsidence within the hundred of St. Briavels, but not from imposing a licence on the same area. The Forestry Commission concluded from its legal advice that the gales did not require a Coal Authority licence, but, after intervention and pressure from the Department of Trade and Industry, it changed its stance and acquiesced to a non-conventional policy with the Coal Authority.

In the 1946 Act, licences were also deemed necessary, and gales in the Forest of Dean that were not under the licence of the National Coal Board had to obtain a licence, but one that was simplified and called a bare licence. During the build-up to the 1994 Act, it was agreed that the Forest of Dean free miners would be permitted to continue to operate on the simplified licence, even though that licence was often poorly and laxly administered.

It was clear that coal in the Forest of Dean was seen to be vested in the state under the aegis of the Coal Authority under the 1994 Act. However, the position of the free miners, their heirs and assigns is fully set out in the unrepealed Dean Forest Mines Enactments. Apart from an exclusive right of the grant of a gale licence, the heirs and assigns have all other rights. After the passage of the 1994 Act, free miners rightly felt that not only did they face dual regulation--because they were already regulated by the deputy gaveller--but they were subject to additional licensing, which had to be paid for, from the Coal Authority. That would effectively take away their ancient right.

There followed extensive negotiations with the free miners and the Forestry Commission on behalf of the deputy gaveller. The Coal Authority put into place a cheap, simple licensing arrangement--as they described it--which was finally agreed to in spring 1997; the timing will not pass anyone's notice, as it was just before

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the general election. Under the arrangement, free miners would have to pay a £50 licence. The licensing of other coal mining areas involves considerably higher amounts. It is important that the free miners were given a special licence in recognition of the fact that they were unique and different.

Some free miners agreed to the arrangement, but some did not. After the May 1997 election, they brought their case to me as their new Member of Parliament. They felt that the compromise of the reduced £50 licence--to which not all had agreed--was not good enough. Their principle had been lost, and so had their ancient right. My part in their campaign started from there. After extensive correspondence with the Department of Trade and Industry, I managed to secure time from the then Minister to meet me and a delegation. Although the Minister was sympathetic and wanted to assist, we could not make progress: it seemed that only primary legislation could alter the facts, and the Government could not at that time consider putting it on their agenda.

After considerable further representations, my right hon. Friend the Minister came to see for herself, for which I am most grateful. Does she now, like me, support the ancient customs of the free miners and does she believe that that the Coal Authority licensing threatens them? Does not she agree that the Dean Forest Mines Enactments are still statutes in force? Cannot we find a solution? Is it possible to open up fresh negotiations with the Coal Authority to reduce the April 1997 agreement of the £50 licence to zero, so that the miners can become free miners again? Is it possible to introduce a suitably worded ministerial direction under section 6 of the 1994 Act? I know that the Coal Authority has questioned whether that would be possible. Section 6(2) provides:

Section 1(5)(a) of the 1994 Act contains an exemption for the requirement of a licence for those operations that are performed by or on behalf of the Crown. Is not the Forest of Dean held by the Forestry Commission on behalf of the Crown, and are not the minerals therefore subject by statute solely to the rights of the Crown? I should be interested to hear, either today or later, my right hon. Friend's views on that point. Does she accept that free miners, by virtue of a gale, hold from the Crown a statutory licence to work the minerals appertaining to the gale and in return pay a share of their profits in the form of a royalty--known locally as the Queen's penny; that they are therefore partners with the Crown; and that, consequently, a second licence from the Coal Authority is contrary to the existing legislation and discriminatory and unfair to free miners?

At the meeting in July, my right hon. Friend the Minister made certain commitments. Further to that, has her Department researched the intentions relating to the free miners when the 1994 Act was prepared? Has the Department studied the excellent report that was prepared by the free miners, and will my right hon. Friend respond to the specific points that it makes?

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This case, like the Forest of Dean, is unique. Testimony to that is the fact that there is no other Member of Parliament in the Chamber--no other Back-Bench Member, that is. It affects no other Member of Parliament. Free miners exist only in the Forest of Dean, so their case has no repercussions for other coalfields and cannot be used by other miners as a precedent. Currently, free mining is at an historical low point: world market prices are low and commercial output from the forest is exceedingly small. The issue directly affects only a handful of individuals, but it is nevertheless causing them distress. Some are facing pressure and enforcement action from the Coal Authority, or choosing not to work their gales to win the coal to which they have a right, because they refuse to pay the £50 licence.

However, there is a wider issue. Free mining is part of the entire Forest of Dean community. It is an integral aspect of and crucial to the forest and it is fundamental to the identity of a forester. It is a vital part of our tourist industry, providing a considerable attraction for visitors. It is not environmentally unfriendly--indeed, the present scale of operation is such that entire surface gear does not exceed more than a few hectares.

My right hon. Friend said in July that she would look at the issue afresh and draw a line under the past, so that we could move forward. I thank her for that; the free miners and I are aware of her commitment. I hope that she will be able to report on any progress made and answer the questions that I have raised today. The free miners, who have enjoyed their ancient rights for many centuries, have made it clear that they are not concerned with hurrying this issue. However, they want to get the principle right. They are prepared to fight on and campaign until they achieve some success, and I am with them.

1.41 pm

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell) : I associate myself with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ). You and I go back a long way, Mrs. Michie, and it is a pleasure to appear before you. We both know parts of the country that are extremely beautiful and have rich and varied traditions and histories. However, I must put up my hands and say that, until I discussed the matter with my hon. Friend, I was unaware of the history of the Forest of Dean and the free miners. It was my pleasure to visit the forest and see great beauty, albeit beauty that differs greatly from the sort that you and I are used to, Mrs. Michie.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. This is without doubt one of the more fascinating matters that I have had to deal with as a Minister. It is also one of the most complex. Only a few hours after I became Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, she raised with me the issue of the free miners of the forest of Dean, so her dedication to their cause cannot in any way be questioned.

I have enormous sympathy for the free miners. Having met them, I know that they are men--I met no lady free miners--of huge integrity and dedication, who

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are conscious of their history. They mine not only coal, but ochre--I had not realised that ochre is mined in this country--and ironstone. Despite my sympathy for their cause and my great respect for them, there are differences between us, but they are differences in interpretation of law, not of commitment. The Government have no wish to see these ancient customs disappear and we accept that the Dean Forest Mines Enactments remain in force, but we must also accept that they are subject to provisions in later legislation.

When I visited the forest and met the delegation of free miners, I listened to their concerns and learned how strongly they feel about their licensing by the Coal Authority. My hon. Friend has referred to the submission that they have prepared as a consequence of my request that we draw a line under the past and try to assemble the arguments and take a fresh look at the issue. I received their submission at the beginning of September: it is impressive, comprehensive, and contains a clear expression of their contention and reasoning, and I am grateful for the work that went into it. My Department has studied it very carefully.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her final remark that the primary desire was not to speed matters along, because the complexity of some of the issues is such that the research will take some time to come to a conclusion. When I met the free miners, I promised that my officials would comb carefully through the Department's files relating to the preparation and passage of the Coal Industry Act 1994 to examine the consideration given at the time to the position of the free miners. My hon. Friend will be aware that I am not privileged to have access to the advice given to the previous Ministers; however, my officials assure me that consideration was given to the free miners.

Today's debate gives me an opportunity to explain some of the responses that have been given to the key points, not only in connection with the exercise that we are conducting, which is by no means complete, but with the general issues raised by my hon. Friend and by the free miners themselves. As soon as the research is completed, I will write to my hon. Friend and to the free miners; in the meantime, she knows that my door is always open and that I am willing to discuss these matters. However, I draw to my hon. Friend's attention the fact that some issues fall within the remit of the Coal Authority and therefore have to be discussed directly with that authority.

My hon. Friend asked me about my powers of direction over the Coal Authority. I have sought advice on that question and I am assured that I cannot direct the authority to do something that falls outside its statutory duties. The view of the authority and the Department has been that it is in accordance with the statutory framework for the Coal Authority to issue licences to free miners. That is a substantive point of difference between us and, although I have not been able to find a way forward, I pledge to continue to consider the issue.

The key issue relates to who owns the coal under the Forest of Dean. The Coal Authority owns the coal in the remainder of the country, but the free miners, as my hon. Friend said, assert that the Crown still owns the

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coal under the forest. The free miners point out, rightly, that the Coal Authority is not the Crown, and cite provisions relevant to the forest in the Coal Act 1938 and the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946. They have put forward new arguments relating to those provisions which we are seriously considering.

I must tell my hon. Friend, however, that the prevailing view in the past and now, which is also the view of the Coal Authority, is that ownership of the coal under the Forest of Dean lies with the authority. We consider that section 43 of the 1938 Act transferred the Forestry Commission's interest in the coal to the Coal Commission, but made that transfer subject to the Dean Forest Mines Enactments; the provision allowed free mining to continue, but ownership of the coal passed across. Similarly, section 63 of the 1946 Act exempted free mining operations from being swept up in the nationalisation of the coal industry, thus allowing important traditions to continue. However, it did not affect the ownership of the coal, which passed to the National Coal Board, later renamed the British Coal Corporation, and finally, in 1994, to the Coal Authority. There is no question that the Crown owns the surface of the forest and the other minerals contained beneath it, but ownership of the coal rests with the Coal Authority.

The power of the Coal Authority to issue licences to mine the coal stems from the Coal Industry Act 1994. My officials have examined papers relating to the preparation and passage of the legislation and they say that the papers clearly show that the unusual arrangements in the Forest of Dean were recognised at an early stage by those who developed the licensing policy. It is clear that they were aware of the system of gales and the simple, bare licences that British Coal issued to free miners under section 36 of the 1946 Act. The agreed policy for the forest was that it should follow that pattern and that the Coal Authority should issue simplified licences to free miners. That was made clear in an explanatory note issued by the Department in January 1994, and was explained in correspondence with Forestry Commission headquarters in May 1994. It is true that there was no direct contact with the free miners and, with hindsight, that is regrettable, but their position in relation to the new regime was anticipated and the legislation prepared accordingly.

On the issue of Crown exemption, in their meeting with me and in their submission, the free miners stated forcefully that they consider that they operate on behalf of the Crown and that, accordingly, they should enjoy exemption from licensing for the Crown under section 66 of the 1994 Act. The free miners' links with the Crown go back many centuries and legislation relating to them encapsulates traditions and procedures that have developed in that time. Examination of the 1994 Act reveals that the Crown exemptions were created with the interests of the royal estate and organisations such as Government Departments in mind. It appears that the intention was always that, under the legislation, the Forest of Dean would fall within the licensing remit. The view traditionally held by my Department is that the free miners do not mine on the Crown's behalf, as ownership of the coal rests with the Coal Authority.

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That is the substance of our debate. In their submission, the free miners made new and detailed arguments on that issue and I assure my hon. Friend that we are still examining them.

On the question of dual regulation, the free miners contend that they are regulated by two systems, which is unfair. My hon. Friend explained that the gale grants a statutory licence to work the minerals through section 1 of the Dean Forest Act 1861. I shall try to show that the free miners face a situation no different from that faced by any other coal mining operation in the United Kingdom.

Following the 1994 Act, any operator who wanted to mine coal had to secure both a licence from the Coal Authority under the 1994 Act and, in almost every case, a lease. The lease gives the operator the property interest in the coal and the licence grants permission to exploit it. The lease is usually obtained from the Coal Authority, but in the case of the Forest of Dean the necessary property interest originates in the gale granted by the deputy gaveller. Both a lease and a gale contain rental provisions, although, ironically, the rent from both returns to the Coal Authority. In turn, the authority has to pay the Forestry Commissioners the cost of managing their interest. That is where matters get complicated.

The lease--or gale, as the case may be--and the licence are different and it is vital to appreciate that difference. The two systems of gales and licences sit side by side--they do not replace one another. They fall under separate regimes, but both are necessary for coal mining in the forest in the same way as two documents are needed from the Coal Authority elsewhere in the country. Because of the distinct traditions of the Forest of Dean, the simple and cheap licences to which my hon. Friend referred have been devised for the benefit of the free miners. Therefore, far from free miners facing unfair hardship, they may have some advantage--I know that that will be difficult for my hon. Friend to accept. The free miners are spot on in saying that the 1994 Act does not replace other legislation; it sits side by side with it.

In 1997, the Forestry Commission and the Coal Authority reached an agreement on the terms of a simple, cheap licence for small-scale, traditional underground mining. That reconciled the characteristics of the free miners with the Coal Authority's statutory duties. It also made provisions on safety, subsidence and mining records, which are equally important in the Forest of Dean or anywhere else to safeguard the public. The arrangements provided an enhanced role for the deputy gaveller. The fee, at £50, is substantially less than the several thousands of pounds that a conventional mining operation pays and, at the time, it was regarded as a nominal sum. My hon. Friend asked for it to be cut and I am sure that she will raise the issue with the Coal Authority, although the authority might fear that other licensees would complain about such a reduction. I understand her anxieties, and I want to be of assistance, but I must say to my hon. Friend that compromise and understanding are required on both sides.

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I hope that I have answered most of the points raised by my hon. Friend, with whom I shall certainly maintain contact on these issues. I must also ask the miners to recognise the changes that have taken place over the years. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important issue. I hope that she will take my good wishes to the free miners of the Forest of Dean.

Mrs. Organ : I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for her very clear answers, which provide some avenues for us to pursue, especially those relating to the Crown. In some areas, we now know that there are new

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arguments for us to marshal. We shall have to look at her answers and be aware that, in some cases, we are going to win and in others, we are not--

Mrs. Ray Michie (in the Chair) : Order. Is this an intervention? If so, it should be brief.

Mrs. Organ : May I just say many thanks to the Minister? I shall pass on her good wishes to the free miners in the Forest of Dean.

Mrs. Ray Michie (in the Chair) : We have come to the end of a very interesting debate, and I thank both participants.

Question put and agreed to.

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