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Mining Subsidence

Volume 180: debated on Monday 12 November 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he next expects to meet the chairman of British Coal to discuss compensation for mining subsidence.

My right hon. Friend and I meet the chairman of British Coal regularly to discuss all aspects of the coal industry.

Why do the Government keep kicking this ball around and doing nothing about it? It took a question to the Prime Minister last week to get some movement—she gave me half a promise. I want to know whether the Minister will tell the chairman of British Coal in no uncertain terms that he must pull his finger out. I want a settlement of this business before he retires and before I retire—because we are both retiring.

The fact that a coal subsidence Bill was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech does not rule out such a Bill being introduced this Session. We are determined and ready to bring forward such legislation as soon as parliamentary time can be found. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister observed to the hon. Gentleman only last week that last year 15 Bills were specifically mentioned in the Queen's Speech but by the end of the Session Parliament had passed 45. We look forward to the co-operation of the hon. Gentleman and of the Opposition in expediting the passage of those Bills in the Queen's Speech so that we shall have more parliamentary time in which to deal with this measure.

I and my colleagues care just as much about the subsidence problems of our constituents as does the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes)—although perhaps with fewer histrionics—but he raises a perfectly valid point. I seek the Minister's reassurance that the delay in presenting a Bill to the House is merely because the Government want to consider exactly what British Coal plans to do over the next couple of months. If its plans are satisfactory, so be it. If not, I trust that a Bill will be brought before the House.

I must make it clear that we are determined and ready to bring forward legislation as soon as parliamentary time can be made available, but I should also make it clear that we are making steady progress in advance of legislation. British Coal is shortly to introduce a scheme administered by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. The scheme will provide quicker, cheaper and simpler ways of resolving subsidence disputes. British Coal is determined henceforth to notify householders individually of its mining plans, which should alert householders to the possibility of subsidence damage and enable them to make claims earlier. The time limit for making claims has been clarified, and that clarification has been amplified by a new leaflet from the Department, 20,000 copies of which have been distributed since May. So much is being done to improve arrangements for compensation in advance of the legislation.

Why does not the Minister acknowledge that there is support from the Opposition to get legislation on mining subsidence through, and that there are even Conservative Members who are only too happy to get it through? We shall give him a guarantee to get it through by March with no problem, so why does not he have the guts to give a guarantee that legislation will be introduced even though it was not included in the Queen's Speech?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard my earlier comments; I have no doubt that the business managers will have heard his.

I welcome my hon. Friend's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (M r. Brandon-Bravo), and point out that there is still considerable concern in Leicestershire, particularly in my constituency, about subsidence. Roads regularly subside there. So the prospect of a Bill is exciting for my constituents. In the meantime the continuing process of improvements to the existing arrangements that he has outlined.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have no doubt that there is support for a coal subsidence Bill right throughout the House, as evidenced by the comments of the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and others, for which I am grateful. As I said, we are determined and ready to bring forward that legislation as soon as parliamentary time is made available. In the meantime we shall continue to make steady progress in advance of legislation on improving the situation with regard to coal mining subsidence.

The Government recently published their observations on the recent report on mining subsidence by the Select Committee on Energy. In their observations the Government reject a subsidence advice centre, recommended by the Committee, because they say that they are quite happy with the British Coal scheme that the Minister has just announced. Is the Minister happy about the way in which British Coal has been running its mining subsidence estate offices, especially in the midlands coal area? If those offices continue to be run in the same way, will the Minister introduce an advice centre that is independent of British Coal to which people can go for what they believe to be accurate and independent advice rather than having to seek advice from someone who has been the principal participant in the damage?

We were grateful to the Select Committee on Energy for its report on coal mining subsidence, to which the Government have responded positively. The hon. Gentleman should distinguish between the statutory and non-statutory remedies that might be available. We take issue about whether an advice centre should be part of a statutory framework. I hope that I have shown in my earlier answers that in some areas we think that we can make non-statutory progress as well.