In Committee, the Opposition won the argument for consequential compensation. There was no answer to it. But inevitably we lost the Division. Our colleagues in the Lords won both the argument, in an admirable debate, and the Division and we congratulate them on their victory.
Until I heard the Under-Secretary of State tonight, I had had new hope for, by chance, reconsideration of this amendment coincides with the arrival of a new Minister at the Department of Energy. Looking at the problems with a fresh mind and for the first time, he could not fail to be struck by the lack of justice of the Bill as it stood before the Lords Amendment. So far we have been up against two Ministers, both with a mining background, who have lived with a ludicrous situation so long that they do not appreciate its absurdity.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) in Committee noted that if the fatal pipe at Flixborough chemical works had been broken by subsidence, and not by some other cause, the company would have had a legal claim against the coal board for repair of the pipe but none for the huge plant which the fracture was responsible for destroying.
The board is not as other men. It enjoys a unique immunity. Who would have believed that a public institution like the National Coal Board would have had the arrogance to presume that that situation is acceptable to other people? The only answer to the unanswerable case we advanced in Committee was, "Do not worry. The NCB are good about this sort of thing". In another place, the Minister bluntly stated that granting rights of compensation for consequential damage would lead to unnecessary litigation for damages. As litigation would not arise if the sufferer were satisfied, the noble Lord clearly was not so sure that NCB paternalism would survive a legal case.
May I kill once and for all the idea that the NCB has such an admirable reputation for fair dealing that the citizen need not worry about having no legal rights in his dealings with the board? That is not the impression of my constituents. They had no knowledge of coal mining, and only the discovery of the Selby coalfield has brought them into contact with the NCB. In this community the NCB had to build up a reputation from scratch and so far it has not done well. Take the case of the main line railway. Suddenly, without notice or consultation with the local community, it was announced in the course of the public inquiry that the stretch of the main line railway between York and Selby was to be removed and the people of Selby were to lose the great asset—which they had enjoyed for the past 100 years—of being on the main London to Scotland line.
It is perhaps fanciful to imagine that the community would receive compensation for this very real loss which is a direct consequence of the NCB's mining operations. From the way in which the people of Selby have been treated, they do not get the impression that the board minds very much about this severe consequential damage. The story of the motorway service area at Corley only confirms their worst fears. Who else but the board would expect to have the right to take action, with impunity, the consequences of which have been to close down a lawful trading concern, deprive 80 people of their jobs and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds? If private individuals or firms took such action, they would have to face the consequences in the courts. The board has the privilege of legal immunity. The deplorable aspect of this is that Ministers see nothing wrong in this outrageous anomaly.
The amendment gives people affected by the board's mining operations the same rights as they would have if their property were interferred with by anybody else. Surely this is a perfectly natural and legitimate aspiration?
During the Committee stage, farmers were fobbed off with assurances on compensation that appeared to have no legal validity. I am glad to see that the National Farmers' Union has reacted with commendable vigour to claim for its members their legal rights. In the memorandum we have all received from the union, it states:
It is of great importance to the agricultural industry that this amendment be retained in the Bill if it is to become law.
The statement goes on to repeat the arguments we put in Committee highlighting the damage that subsidence could do in such areas as the Selby coalfield. It says:
The 1957 Act is inadequate for a number of reasons. In the first place, even slight subsidence may result in disturbances to drainage patterns. This can be extremely important especially in areas with a high water table, where the land may be liable to flooding and high agricultural production has been achieved only by consistent improvement and steadily developed under-drainage. Disturbance to this drainage may well result in a degradation of the land and a continuing loss of crops over a number of years. This continuing loss of crops may he the only available evidence for some considerable time that damage to the drainage system has resulted from coal-mining activity. Lack of liability on the part of the National Coal Board for continuing loss may therefore mean that by the time any deficiency in the restoration of the drainage system can be shown the farmer is unable to claim compensation in respect of the damage and loss suffered.