I am sure that the Robens Agreement does apply. That has been underlined by Sir Derek Ezra. I am not so much dealing with its current application. I would like to deal with the concern felt by manufacturers in my constituency over this problem. What we are discussing is not something new. It has been going on for a long time and has been dealt with pragmatically in the past.
The Robens Agreement of 1968, in which I played some small part, was brought about because there was great concern among manufacturers of precision machinery in Coventry, people who work to tolerances of thousandths of a millimetre, that because of undermining of their factories they might be disadvantaged. They feared that they might not only incur direct physical loss but suffer consequential damage, with the result that their workers would be put out of work and they might suffer closure such as that on the M6, but which in the case of a manufacturing company is obviously of much deeper concern.
A gentlemen's agreement was mentioned. That is all very well. One of the reasons why those directly concerned want the situation to be changed statutorily is that there is no absolute guarantee that either Ministers or Chairmen of the National Coal Board will always be gentlemen. It is, therefore, necessary to embody in the law the broad preoccupation which is felt by those who are worried about what might happen.
My hon. Friend touched on the existence of an inter-departmental working party considering the general question of compensation. As the hon. Member for New Forest has said, this working party has been in existence since 1971. In the whole of those five years it has met six times. I wonder whether it should be called the non-working party. A working party dealing with such a vital problem which is so dilatory in reaching a conclusion is surely not to be relied on by us tonight. That is why so many of those concerned feel that this Bill is the occasion for building in specific measures to make sure that at least in this area there shall be proper provision for compensation.
It has been said that the better is the enemy of the good. I have no doubt that if we had a general decision about compensation which would be of wide and general application we would all be much better off and manufacturers and workers could sleep more easily at night, knowing that if anything happened they would be compensated. For the time being we are dealing with the coal industry and the problem of undermining manufacturing industry in places like Coventry.
I quote from a letter I received from the Director of the Coventry and District Engineering Employers' Association. Although he speaks in the name of the employers I can say from my own contacts with the trade unionists in Coventry that what he says expresses the feelings not only of the employers but of the workers in industry there, too. He says:
I know that you are very well aware of our long term concern in relation to compensation for consequential loss arising from the withdrawal of lateral support. I am sure that you will readily appreciate that in a city like Coventry which depends for its prosperity so heavily upon industry that compensation merely for the immediate physical loss caused by subsidence can fall far short of providing anything like an adequate remedy for the firm concerned.
Then he comes to the nub of the matter, namely Clause 2:
For example, even a very modest degree of subsidence could cause a factory assembly line to be taken out of commission for many months with very serious consequences to the firm in terms of lost production not to mention the effect on employment in the factory concerned. Here I would also feel that you would readily see the essential equity of industry's case.
He then goes on to give the roll-call of the firms mentioned. I think it will be agreed that in giving this roll-call of industrial firms concerned he and I, in quoting him, are referring not just to parochial matters in my constituency, but to the concern of the whole nation. He continues:
At present some of the major companies who are vitally concerned include Courtaulds, Dunlop, Alfred Herbert and Morris Engines to name but a few, but really the same problems apply to many other employers to the north of the city.
In mentioning those firms, which are directly over the potential line of mining
underneath the city of Coventry, I think we are dealing with the legitimate claims of those engaged in industry in the city to see that in this important Bill these dangers are recognised. Perhaps I might in parentheses say that I find this a curious hybrid Bill when I see pneumoconiosis, which we all deplore and are happy to see provided for, somehow related to the more controversial question of mining under various cities and farmland.
Be that as it may, the fact is that we have a proposal here which has dangers which has been recognised by my hon. Friend's predecessors. Indeed, they have been recognised by previous chairmen of the National Coal Board. I pay tribute both to Lord Robens and to Sir Derek Ezra who are fully apprised of the dangers. They have promised that the so-called gentlemen's agreement will be maintained.
But, even accepting that, we have now reached a point where the Lords, in their wisdom, have produced a sensible recommendation which I believe should have the non-partisan support of the House. What they are asking is reasonable. I hope that it will be supported.
I should like to give one final illustration. When the first intentions were announced, that the National Coal Board might mine under the City of Coventry, naturally the most acute anxiety was the fear that mining would be carried out underneath the cathedral. That was a legitimate anxiety which immediately produced a proper emotional reaction.