I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment.
In dealing with this amendment on subsidence compensation, I would point out that the Government have never envisaged the Bill—we discussed this matter in Committee—as the right vehicle for making the fundamental change in the compensation provisions for subsidence damage which the Lords Amendment represents. The Bill merely sought to re-enact the compensation provisions from the Coal Act 1938. Together with the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957 they provide the basis of a compensation régime which by and large has worked very well over a number of years.
The National Coal Board goes well beyond its statutory liabilities to avoid individual hardship. In the case of the Selby development it has reached broad agreement with the National Farmers' Union about compensation for crop loss and other matters. The régime appeared to give little cause for complaint until the introduction of the Bill. There was little pressure for change. Nevertheless, an interdepartmental committee of officials was studying the situation to see what improvements, if any, were necessary.
It has been said during the passage of the Bill that it was only right that the National Coal Board should have to pay improved compensation for damage and losses arising from subsidence as quid pro quo for the sweeping new powers to withdraw support which it was said the Bill would provide. Although Clause 2 may give the appearance of providing sweeping new powers, the reality is quite the reverse. The new powers are simply a clarification of the existing rights, to put the matter beyond doubt that the board has the right to withdraw lateral as well as vertical support. It has hitherto always believed that it had such rights and has conducted its operations in that belief. It is generally impossible to withdraw vertical support without at the same time withdrawing lateral support. As regards the generality of surface owners in coal areas, the new powers will make no difference. Existing obligations, whether they are based on formal written agreements, verbal understandings or gentlemen's agreements, will be honoured by the board.
Thus, the call for compensation to be improved to balance the granting of new powers has no base in reality. The existing régime provides a stable basis for operations and transactions, both underground and on the surface. In this way people know where they stand. The National Coal Board is able to plan operations on the basis of compensation costs which can be estimated. On the surface land values can be based on a compensation probability in line with well-known procedures.
To make the fundamental change envisaged in the Lords Amendment would upset these procedures. The board would have to reassess its activities in the light of the increased compensation costs which it might incur. Some faces might have to be closed and the development of others modified. On the surface land values would be affected and, until the newer situation had been operating for some time, there would probably be a great deal of uncertainty.
Another bad feature of the amendment is that it drastically changes the balance between the National Coal Board and the surface owners without any safeguard. Under the present arrangement the surface owner generally has an incentive to take such steps as he can to minimise the damage which might arise from subsidence. Under the amended provision, that incentive virtually would disappear. Consequently, there could be a good deal more damage and loss from subsidence than there is at present. Apart from throwing a big burden of additional costs on the board, that would also lead to a waste of national resources which at present are being safeguarded by the prudence which the existing régime encourages land owners to adopt.
As has been said many times in the passage of the Bill, subsidence compensation is a complex matter which does not lend itself to the simple change which the Lords Amendment would make without running the risk of undesirable and unwelcome side effects and disruptions of the kind I have outlined.
For all these reasons, I ask the House to reject the amendment. In so doing, I repeat the assurances which have been given on a number of occasions—namely, that the working party of officials will complete their review of mining subsidence as quickly as possible and that an early opportunity will be sought to introduce amending legislation if that turns out to be desirable.