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Supplementary Provisions Relating To Right To Withdraw Support

Volume 889: debated on Thursday 10 April 1975

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11.45 p.m.

I beg to move Amendment No. 16, in page 15, line 5, after 'and', insert' '(a)'.

With this amendment we are to discuss Government Amendments Nos. 17. 18 and 19.

The amendments are intended to provide that any dispute as to the amount of compensation for subsidence damage payable by the board under Clause 2 or the Schedule shall be determined by the Lands Tribunal or, in Scotland, the Lands Tribunal for Scotland.

An amendment to this effect, tabled by the Opposition in Committee was accepted in principle, as reported at col. 101 of the Official Report of our Committee proceedings, and an undertaking to introduce an appropriate provision was given subject to consideration of the potential work load this might pose for the Lands Tribunal.

Reference was made in Committee to the possibility of using county courts for the resolution of disputes over small compensation claims, as is provided in the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957. However, on further investigation this provision seems never to have been used, and it was considered unnecessary to repeat it in this Bill.

The amendments relate to a further pledge given by the Minister in Committee. The schedule deals with the requirement by the National Coal Board that new buildings should conform to its requirements, in so far as they may need strengthening to counter subsidence resulting from mining extraction beneath. The schedule clearly states that all reasonable costs incurred in carrying out the board's requirements, and any subsequent damage caused by subsidence, shall be determined by arbitration, and that any amount payable shall be determined by the Lands Tribunal. We are grateful that this arbitration system has been so successfully introduced at this stage rather than waiting until the Bill went to the other place.

However, in the important debate in Committee on 13th March it became obvious that the complaints made by several representative bodies, such as the British Ceramic Manufacturers' Federation, and local authorities, were justified to a certain extent, in that in practice the board had not carried out its side of the arrangement, and was not providing specifications and advice for improvements and stren-thening of new buildings. We found that it was finding it cheaper to wait and put right any damage caused, rather than incur the liability for contributing towards the cost of such precautions.

The Under-Secretary admitted that in Committee, when he was pressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet). He said:
"… may I say that at present the board never exercises this option"—
the option to give specifications and advice.
"It prefers to wait and see what happens."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 13th March 1975; c. 163.]
The Bill requires a person proposing to construct buildings or works on land affected by the withdrawal of support to notify the board of his proposals. If required, he must produce the plans and specifications and subsequently build according to the board's requirements, or lose compensation in the event of subsidence damage. However, it transpires that no such advice has been given by the board. Therefore, the whole of Schedule 1 seems to be irrelevant.

The Bill is far-reaching, because its legislation means that the coal board's powers over people in mining areas are being very much extended. We cannot feel entirely happy that vital aspects of compensation following subsidence should be left vaguely in the air. I hope that the Government will examine carefully the unsatisfactory nature of these coal board procedures and their non-implementation when it comes to giving the advice and specifications laid down by the schedule. I hope that we shall receive an assurance that the interdepartmental working party which is looking into this matter will prevail on the board to carry out its side of the bargain.

I am seized of the points raised by the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam). We discussed this matter at great length in Committee, and Opposition Members made weighty speeches on it. I have nothing fresh to say on it, although I understand why the hon. Gentleman should want to return to it tonight and to re-emphasise the points made in Committee by his hon. Friends.

The hon. Gentleman has asked me for a specific undertaking that the interdepartmental committee will look at all aspects of the question of compensation. I do not know whether we shall be able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman, but he can rest assured that the investigation will be thorough and that his points will receive the consideration he would wish them to receive.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 17, in page 15, line 7, leave out from 'provision' to 'shall' in line 8.

No. 18, in page 15, line 8, at end add

  • (b) any question as to the amount payable by them in respect of any such liability shall he determined by the Lands Tribunal or, if the land concerned is in Scotland the Lands Tribunal for Scotland'.

No. 19, in page 16, line 9, at end add—

'(2) Any question as to the amount of any compensation payable under section 2(3) of this Act or paragraph 2 above shall be determined by the Lands Tribunal or, if the land concerned is in Scotland, the Lands Tribunal for Scotland '—[Mr. Eadie.]

Order for Third Reading read.—[ Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, and Prince of Wales's Consent signified.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

11.53 p.m.

I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) for the support which he has given me during the Bill's passage. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State for the helpful way in which he has tried to meet the points raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

This Bill will go down in history as a very important one. It begins to repay the debt owed by society to those who have been responsible for production of the principal energy source on which we have depended. It provides vast new resources for the coal industry, both at Selby and in respect of opencast working. Selby's importance to our economy can never be overstated. It is every bit as important as anything obtained from the North Sea. It is probably worth £250 million a year in the equivalent foreign exchange to us and our economy. Some may regard the North Sea as being in competition with the coal industry. I do not. I regard them as complementary.

We have four fuels, but we rely principally on two. The coal industry, which has been responsible for the growth of our industrial pattern, is now taking on a new lease of life. The year 1974 saw the first increase in the labour force since the mid-I950s. The days of relying on cheap oil to solve our problems have disappeared for ever. The extraordinary thing is that we have a situation in which, if oil prices fall too far, we find ourselves facing new problems. But that is the Secretary of State's problem, not mine. I welcome the Bill, as do my right hon. and hon. Friends.

The Under-Secretary generously said, in a letter of 20th March—one of his frequent communications with me:
"May I thank you and your colleagues for the courteous and helpful way in which you have put forward your views during our discussions. I much appreciate this and I am sure this has produced a better Bill as a result."
I reciprocate those feelings, and wish the Bill every success when it becomes an Act.

11.56 p.m.

I thank the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) for his generous remarks at the end of what I am sure we all regard as an important Bill. I was pleased to hear him say that the coal industry has a new lease of life. To a certain extent a lot of the credit is due to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. It has often been said that for the first time in perhaps 20 years or more we have something like a fuel policy and that coal is occupying its proper place in that policy.

We now have flexibility of supplies and we have the tremendous prospect of being self-sufficient in a few years. Where possible we have introduced amendments to meet the wishes of the Committee. In other cases we have given assurances which I believe will provide the appropriate administrative safeguards. It is true that in some instances it has not been possible to meet the points made by the Opposition. This does not mean that we do not understand and appreciate their points. In such cases we have tried fully to explain why the Government were bound to take a different view.

As a result of all the work that has been done inside and outside this House we now have a much better Bill. It provides much-needed financial benefit and relief for some unfortunate individuals who, I am sure, have the sympathy of the whole House. It will substantially benefit the national interest while, at the same time, going as far as possible to safeguard the rights of those affected. I express the gratitude of the Government to all who have contributed so constructively to these proceedings. It is with pride and pleasure that I ask the House to give the Bill a Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.