New Right of Board to Withdraw Support to Enable Coal to Be Worked.

Part of Coal Industry Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th July 1975.

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Photo of Mr Patrick McNair-Wilson Mr Patrick McNair-Wilson , New Forest 12:00 am, 15th July 1975

As I pointed out at the beginning, the common law right of everybody in this country is the right to support under his land, but it is eroded by various Acts of Parliament. Of course there is a common law right to recover damages for loss, but are we suggesting that if somebody suffers serious damage to a water course on his farm, he has to fight this beak and claw through the courts without being able to have any recourse to a law which states that the Coal Board shall have a responsibility in the matter? I do not think that that is fair at all.

I do not see any reason why we should be passing legislation which gives any authority the right to come on to anybody's land or under his land and cause him damage which may lead to severe financial loss, and then expect him to have to fight it through the courts.

If the hon. Gentleman had followed our proceedings he would know that in Clause 1, on the pneumoconiotics provisions, it was precisely this point about the old common law right—on which, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out so many times, he had to fight for people who were suffering from pneumoconiosis—which led to this provision in the Bill in Clause 1 to make it an obligation that these people should be looked after, I suggest that that obligation should be just as important in Clause 2.

There are not only those two cases. I could cite others. The British Ceramics Manufacturers' Federation made it clear that its members too, are extremely concerned. They have every reason to be, because, as I said at the beginning, in this matter the Government have been dragging their feet very badly. In a Written Question recently to the Secretary of State for Energy about this interdepartmental committee to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his speech, I asked the Secretary of State for Energy what are the terms of reference of the interdepartmental committee appointed in 1971 to consider the questions of compensation for damage and injury resulting from mining or other industrial operations; how many times the committee has met; when it is due to report; whether its conclusions will be made public; and whether it is his intention to incorporate the recommendations in the current Coal Industry Bill. The answer was: The terms of reference of the Working Group on Mining Subsidence Compensation are: 'To study the problem of damage resulting from coal mining subsidence and to make recommendations with regard to two separate issues, viz.: (a) the National Coal Bord's statutory liability to pay compensation; (b) the Board's attitude towards the cost of structural precautions to lessen the risk of damage to new buildings'. The answer went on: The Working Group has had six full meetings and in addition various consultations have taken place by correspondence and between individual members. It has been asked to report as quickly as possible after it has had time to give proper consideration to the new evidence which has been coming to light … As is usual in the case of committees of officials, the report will not be made public but the Government will make a full statement on the subject when it has had time to consider the report. If new legislation is then called for, an early opportunity will be sought for it.—[Official Report, 23rd May 1975; Vol. 892, c. 699.] This committee—and I am not blaming only the hon. Gentleman's Department here, because two Governments are involved; indeed, three separate Parliaments—has been sitting for four years and has had six meetings. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether the Coal Board has given evidence to this body? I am not at all sure that it has. In fact, I am not at all sure that there is any sign of this committee reporting at all. I do not think it right to have legislation introduced into the House at this time which calls for the introduction of new rights to withdraw support without either having that body's recommendations available to the Government or a satisfactory compensation Bill being made available.

It boils down to whether the Minister is satisfied to rely entirely upon the Coal Act of 1938. I was always told that the wicked old days of the private coal owner before the days of nationalisation were so evil as to be hardly mentioned in polite company, yet the Minister's argument relies upon that Act of Parliament. That and the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act of 1957 are two pillars of the law which obviously have been overtaken by events.

In Committee, when the Minister referred to both the inquiry and the Acts, he said: Consequential losses and blight are not included as such in the provisions of either the Coal Act 1938 or the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957, which are the existing basis for subsidence compensation."— [Official Report, Standing Committee A, 11th March 1975, c. 99.] From the hon. Gentleman's own lips, it is clear that these two real concerns have to be covered some time soon.

This amendment from the other place at least builds in a safeguard. At least it includes the phrase "consequential damage". It also gives people an opportunity of treating for nuisance. It provides for individuals a safeguard, even if it is not the full safeguard which the Opposition wanted.

I am afraid that the story of this compensation discussion is one of slovenly and half-hearted attitudes by many people who should have the individual citizen's interests very much more at heart than they appear to have. The Opposition do not believe that this Bill should be passed into law without giving those individual citizens some real rights written in legislation upon which they can rely should the industry spread into their areas. I remind every hon. Member that his own constituents may be affected. Are hon. Members satisfied that the gentlemen's agreement to which the Minister referred and the old Acts of pre-war days are sufficient safeguards? The Opposition do not think that they are. For that reason, we shall vote against the Government's motion.