I beg to move,
That this House believes that any public body or organisation involved in the working or getting of coal should be required to take steps to prevent subsidence damage and to promote public awareness of any workings which might give rise to such damage; further believes that the owners of houses, land, buildings and other constructions which have suffered damage due to subsidence from the working and getting of coal should without time limit receive full right of repair to, or equitable compensation for, their properties; and calls for the establishment of an independent arbitration procedure to resolve any disputes that may arise over compensation for subsidence damage or any matter relating thereto.
I am grateful for the fact that the rules of the House have allowed me this opportunity to enable hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber to discuss the important topic of mining subsidence. I hope that at the end of the debate hon. Members will be more aware of the subject and that the Minister will be kind enough to give some suggestions as to what the Government intend to do to rectify the problems created by subsidence damage.
Many hon. Members will be aware of my interest in this matter. If they are not, let me advise them that if they wish to get on in politics, they should read Hansard more regularly. The problem of coal mining subsidence in parts of north Nottinghamshire is now so bad that it is the single most important issue for home owners in the area. Proof of that is shown daily in the mail bags of other hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friends the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), all of whom I hope will be given an opportunity to speak in the debate.
In other parts of the United Kingdom, particularly in Yorkshire and Wales, similar problems are appearing regularly in mining areas. Therefore, the issue needs the Government's attention so that home owners, tenants of damaged properties, businesses, landowners and the service industries may be given the justice necessary to enable them to repair such damage, or at least provided with proper compensation if it is required.
Despite the fact that the Select Committee on Energy carried out major investigations into the problem, including visits to the affected coalfield areas, the receiving of written and oral evidence and the publication of the report in 1984 by Professor Waddilove entitled, "The repair and compensation system for coal mining subsidence", I find it amazing that hon. Members still await any positive action. If any hon. Member doubts that statement, I should say that since the publication of the Waddilove report in 1984 all that has transpired from Government has been the publication in 1987 of their response to the report's proposals and, recently, a Department of Energy consultative document entitled, "Coal mining subsidence compensation: Proposals for legislation". Those reports were critical of each other on the most important points.
I shall point to some of the major differences between the documents I have listed. The Government conceded in their response to the Waddilove inquiry the importance of accurate prediction of possible subsidence damage, yet they maintain the view that as that may be expensive, a
balance has to be struck between benefits and additional costs. Without any shadow of doubt, that is contrary to the spirit of the Waddilove findings, which recommend:
that is, British Coal—
should extend the priorities for investigating likely subsidence damage and consequent preventive work to include sensitive community areas such as residential neighbourhoods".
Paragraph 80 of the same report states that British Coal
should undertake such appropriate preventive measures.
The Minister will probably say that British Coal already does a considerable amount of predictive work, including the carrying out of instructions given to it in 1984 on procedures to be adhered to, and the compilation of a subsidence damage manual. Will the Minister make that manual available to hon. Members? It would be of great help to all those concerned with this matter.
On prevention and precautionary measures, the Waddilove recommendations and those of the Government differ dramatically in their resolve. For example, paragraph 83 of the Waddilove report states:
Coal should not normally be extracted where the Board predicts that severe or very severe damage is likely to occur unless action can be taken to reduce the likelihood of damage below this level."
The Government's view is only to concede that local planning authorities face a dilemma in such circumstances.
In my constituency of Mansfield there has been a rumour for some time that British Coal intends to make application to mine into the pillar of coal on which most of the centre of the town now stands. Will the Minister investigate that and give me an answer on his findings? Is he aware that hundreds of millions of pounds worth of property and investments are situated above the pillar? If the rumour is true, will he give an assurance that Government Departments will make available the extra finance necessary to try to prevent damage and, thereafter, to remedy any that may occur?
The Government have accepted the principle that proper notification was not being conducted fairly by British Coal and that in many cases inadequate information was being provided to those concerned with subsidence. For instance, with mining searches, recent practice in Nottinghamshire has been to provide basic information on past and current mining activities but not details of compensation claims settled and the amounts involved or what repairs they covered.
Similarly, little liaison exists between prospective purchasers and the estate departments of British Coal. Until a central register exists that is easily accessible to anyone interested and which is preferably held and managed by the local authority, difficulties will continue to occur. Such a facility would rightly offer prospective home or business purchasers direct access to the vital information they need before purchase. Further, it would give owners who believe that their property had experienced damage the opportunity to check for themselves.
The Waddilove inquiry recommended that the Government should bring the Law Society and British Coal together to agree a form of mining search to be used by prospective purchasers of property in mining areas. Why has that not yet happened? Many regard the repair of damage to property as the main cause affecting the resolution of this issue.
Needless to say, the Minister will not be surprised to learn that I agree with the Waddilove findings and the Government's view that the repair of damaged property to its pre-damaged condition is the correct formula to adopt. Compensation is paid only in exceptional circumstances and when it is agreed by all parties. I take issue, however, with a number of the matters that have been raised.
The infamous six-year rule is the method by which British Coal determines whether it should be liable for repair or compensation for damage caused by coal mining subsidence. It is outrageous and nonsense that British Coal should feel that because coal mining subsidence damage occurred six years or more after coal mining ceased under a property, it should not be responsible. I have been told that on almost every occasion when that principle has been challenged in the courts it has not been upheld, yet the Government still feel able to rely on that rule. It arises out of the Limitation Act 1980 and is the appropriate measure for such cases.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, under the Housing Bill, latent damage after house purchase is limited to 10 years? I believe that I am right in saying that there is no limit in the Latent Damage Act 1986. People suffering subsidence damage, such as those in my constituency, are getting a raw deal.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be no limit to the period in which damages can be claimed for subsidence damage? There were a number of pits in my constituency, but after 30 years, holes and pitfalls are still appearing for which compensation cannot be claimed. A farm in my constituency, at which mining finished in the 1930s, is still suffering from pitfalls. Does my hon. Friend agree that compensation should be paid regardless of time?
As my hon. Friend knows, I have introduced two private Member's Bills, which stipulate that there should be no time limit with regard to damage to properties.
I inform the Minister that I am in possession of a number of confidential British Coal documents relating to the six-year rule. They show a conspiracy by British Coal in this matter. I have a letter that was sent by British Coal's London headquarters to Mr. Williams, who owns a damaged home in Sutton in Ashfield. The letter is dated 7 January 1985 and states:
The strongest limitation period that can apply to subsidence claims is twelve years."
That view is supported by Mr. Tyrrell, who is regional solicitor for British Coal at its Eastwood hall offices. In a memorandum dated 1 April 1985 to the deputy director of administration, north Nottinghamshire area, and his area estate managers, he says:
Claims for compensation founded on agreements under seal made between the Board and the surface owner—12 years. Claims for repair of property—12 years."
In a confidential memorandum dated 13 May 1985, M r. Wenn, who is an area estates manager in the north Nottinghamshire area, went into more detail. Under a section headed "Claims for repairs" he states:
Severance Terms contained in Title Deeds etc. —the limitation period is 12 years from the date of damage.
The Minister should remember that that is a memorandum to an estates officer saying British Coal should deceive owners who have damaged property.
The memorandum continues:
You will note that these limitation periods appear to be entirely contrary to those that we have been employing for a number of years, i.e. claims for compensation generally under title deeds, we have allowed 12 years plus 2 years for ground movement to cease and claims for repair under the Acts, 6 years, plus 2 years for ground movement to cease. Implementation, therefore, is bound to be difficult."
The final paragraph of the memorandum says:
It is clearly in the Board's interest to restrict claims for compensation to 6 years from the date the damage occurred as this may limit our liability. The problem is going to be that as we are pursuing a repairs policy more claims will fall into the 12 year limitation."
I have a confidential British Coal document—reference EDI(77) 1 K 664—which is headed "Estates department instruction." It was sent out by Mr. Dickie, who was then national director of estates. On page six he says:
It is twelve years where the obligation to pay compensation was imposed by a covenant in a Mining Lease or other document by which the Board are still contractually bound, or by a Working Facilities Order.
I shall willingly pass all those documents to the Minister for his comments.
I should like to mention the effect on some of my constituents of the insistence on the six-year interpretation. The first case involves a constituent who lives at 45 High street, Mansfield Woodhouse. His home is in a deplorable state of disrepair; ceilings are cracked throughout the property, floors are out of level, window frames are twisted beyond repair and, despite the fact that the cottage is built of Portland stone and its outside walls are 20 inches thick, huge cracks have appeared inside and outside it. Mining last took place under the property in 1979. The cottage, which is the middle property of three, is splitting in two. Repairs to the properties on either side are being paid for by British Coal. To make matters worse, the property is listed with a preservation order because of its unusual and historical importance.
Mr. Johnson of 22, Bosworth street, Mansfield lives in a semi-detached property on the Ladybrook estate. Despite the fact that the adjoining house has been repaired, British Coal continually refuses to offer help to repair the property.
Mr. and Mrs. Sharman live at 24 Williamson street, Mansfield. Mr. Sharman was a coal miner and deputy, and worked for British Coal for 50 years. That elderly couple bought their council home only to be told that, because the head of claim—the local council—had changed, a new claim was required. When they claimed, they were immediately informed that, because it was a new claim, they were out of time.
Mr. and Mrs. Lilley of 37, Harropwhite road, Mansfield went as far as to pay for a lengthy consultative report on their property. It clearly showed that severe damage to their home had been caused by mining subsidence. They have been told that to continue their fight for justice in the courts will cost about £100,000—a matter that is making both of them very ill.
I shall pass the Minister a photograph album of the severe damage to 42, Southwell road east, so that he has some idea how bad it is. It is in such a state of disrepair, because of coal mining subsidence, that it is considered to be dangerous for its owners and local residents. British Coal has agreed that the property is a write-off but refuses to settle the matter because it believes that it can force the owners to accept less for their home than would enable them to buy a similar home.
There is also the issue of the response by British Coal to the need for repairs or to contact from a home owner who believes that he has a subsidence problem. Contacts and promises by representatives to visit are often not followed up. British Coal's response needs to be reassessed, because my files are full of instances of intimidation of home owners after visits by Coal Board staff. The rules need to be changed so that staff are fully aware that their job is not to intimidate owners or to scare them into believing that they have no right to compensation or repair of their properties by British Coal.
Temporary accommodation is important for people who have to leave their homes while repairs are carried out. I fully agree with the main thrust of the Government's recommendations in response to the Waddilove report. There are two main problems in north Nottinghamshire, the first of which is availability. There is an enormous list of families waiting for British Coal properties to become vacant. British Coal estates officers regularly cite that factor as a reason for owners quickly accepting sometimes low financial compensation or delaying repairs.
The second problem involves management. I have had to sort out problems with a number of the public services, including the gas and electricity boards, to stop them disconnecting properties because of non-payment of bills by British Coal. I hope that the Minister will note my comments and write to British Coal in Nottinghamshire stipulating that the board must adhere to criteria on the siting, standard, availability and management of temporary homes.
I should like to deal with compensation settlements generally, which I hope I have shown are unsatisfactory. I am disappointed that the Government in their response have declined to support the concept of a local or a regional independent arbitration service to deal with these matters. It is a major error for British Coal to rely on a home owner's right merely to a reference to the lands tribunals. As the Minister is aware, in the past two weeks two cases against the board—one in Leicester and the other in Mansfield—were won under this system, and compensation of about £40,000 and £15,000 were agreed. It took four years for both cases to reach that position, with costs in each case estimated to be between £100,000 and £150,000. These cases are not unusual; many have preceded them. A much more practical and humane and cheaper approach would be to use the independent arbitration service which I recommended in a private Member's Bill.
I again ask whether the Government intend to agree to the recommendations of the Waddilove inquiry. Recommendation 95 states:
Government Departments should be prepared to adjust the various Capital Expenditure Allocations made to Local Authorities to take account of additional Expenditure incurred as a result of serious damage to an area.
I ask that question because, in my district council area of Mansfield, the following damage problems arise: first, structural repair costs to council housing stock of about £1 million are outstanding, covering hundreds of homes; secondly, at least eight homes which have had to be
vacated because of subsidence damage are uninhabitable; thirdly, 16 properties which have had to be demolished because of coal mining subsidence; and, fourthly, because British Coal has placed stop notices on certain areas, hundreds of homes cannot be repaired.
The Minister is aware that the Department of Energy is awaiting responses to a recent consultative document on this subject. He is aware also that district councils throughout north Nottinghamshire, together with Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire county councils, have already undertaken a study into their areas, as well as compilation of a central register of damage to property, services and land. I ask the Minister to take account of that work and expenditure and agree to delay the closing date of the consultative exercise so that the valuable information which the study will provide is included.
As hon. Members know, I could speak for hours on this subject but I should like to offer others the opportunity to participate. I ask the Minister to take note of all my questions and to respond to me either at the end of the debate or later, if he wishes to investigate other avenues. I ask the House to record my view that this matter is of public concern, especially in my area of north Nottinghamshire, which has hundreds of damaged homes, businesses awaiting compensation and some schools and even a hospital which have closed. I sincerely ask the Minister to respond genuinely to my request for justice for home owners and businesses in my area.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on winning the ballot and on selecting this subject, which is locally of great concern in his constituency and peripherally of concern in mine.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman's worry. He will recall that, just before the Easter adjournment, at 5 am in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill, we debated this and a number of other subjects covering economic development generally in Nottinghamshire. There was not enormous agreement then, but I am pleased to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that on one issue he is in complete agreement with British Coal. The board does not want its headquarters moved to Nottingham. Like the hon. Gentleman, the board feels that that would not be an enormous advantage. I continue to find that surprising, as 50 per cent. of the economic activity in mining is based on the Nottinghamshire area, but British Coal clearly feels that it is more suitable for the headquarters to be nearer the Department than the industry's centre.
I declare an interest in that I have recently received notice that mining will take place under my home near the Cotgrave colliery. That colliery has had major problems, but it has also had enormous investment. Now that its prospects are much improved, I wait with a certain trepidation to see whether there is subsidence under my own home. I have, however, been impressed by the length of notice warning that mining would occur under our village, the details of the planning process and the information on my rights to object, although I shall not be objecting. Although my constituency is a coal mining area, I have had only a handful of complaints about problems with the board over subsidence. In the past year I have had only three or four complaints and I felt each time that the board had looked fairly into the matter.
I underline the need to keep subsidence to the minimum and I also underline the progress made both in the interests of those affected, many of whom work in the industry—enormous anxiety and distress can be caused—and also in the interests of the industry as a whole. The Waddilove report makes it clear that the cost of subsidence is part of the cost of winning coal. We must bear both points equally in mind. A balance must be struck, as I am sure the hon. Member for Mansfield accepts.
British Coal now has a far better system of notification and publicity, following introduction of new notification procedures in 1986, which advised where workings were taking place or were about to take place. Credit is due to British Coal for that action and to the industry. which is now operating in a much better climate of realism. We must accept that, no matter how the costs of subsidence are divided—whether as social costs, the cost to British Coal as a whole or the costs to an individual pit—there is a trend towards pit-top accounting and there must be a reserve to meet the potential liability for subsidence. That reserve must increasingly relate to the cost of the coal extracted from under the houses affected.
I draw attention to the need to have a procedure that is neither costly nor cumbersome and to the absolute necessity to do right by those adversely affected by subsidence. It is interesting to note what John Harris, the chairman of the East Midlands electricity board, whose headquarters is in my constituency, said on a visit to the House last week. He recognises that he is sitting on top of an enormous coalfield with huge potential. He recognises that in a landlocked area, importing foreign coal is not particularly attractive. He recognises that the potential for new coal-fired power stations is enormous. He recognises that Nottinghamshire could be the powerhouse of the energy and electricity industries.
We have the natural resources, skills, traditions and manpower. The main proviso—if not the only proviso—is that we should continue the current progress towards competitiveness and maintain the current excellent productivity results. In the Nottinghamshire area we have broken the record for productivity five times this year alone. Productivity nationally is up by 16 per cent. and in the past year the Gedling colliery in my constituency increased its productivity by 25 per cent. Having lost £6 million last year, it expects to break even this year. Those figures are an enormous credit to the miners and the management. They are encouraging to customers and critical to the plans and future of the privatised electricity industry.
My remarks are intended to keep subsidence and the many other important problems aired by the hon. Member for Mansfield in perspective. All too often when we discuss the prospects for the coal industry we hear doom and gloom. We need to hear more about the progress that has been made in the industry and the promise and the prospects for the future.
In referring to the need to keep subsidence to a minimum, I have already paid tribute to the greater sensitivity of British Coal in Nottinghamshire to the problem. I should like to go further than that. I note that in the Sherwood colliery, which I think is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Mansfield, there has been working by finger panels or single entry and in built-up areas panels of 40 m or 45 m wide have been used, rather than the normal long wall of 200 m plus. That is an example of sensitivity to possible disturbance on the surface of the techniques of mining underneath.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that. I would point out that on a number of occasions I have had to visit properities in areas around Sherwood where whole streets of houses were shuddering because of the new workings underneath.
I readily accept what the hon. Gentleman says, as I am no expert in these matters. However, those in the industry tell me that the point I am making is an example of a more sensitive mining technique which makes a great deal of difference to the degree of subsidence. Perhaps that is why there is evidence of progess in respect of the number of claims. In Nottinghamshire, I understand, there are one third as many claims as there were three years ago. That shows that there has been some progress at least.
The third key point that I mentioned was the need to deal fairly with those affected and ensure that their properties can be properly looked after. As I said in dealing with claims, we must strike a balance between the maintenance of professional standards and the merits of speed. We should again give credit where it is due. In Nottinghamshire, British Coal is handling claims 50 per cent. faster than it was last year. It is also employing outside professional consultants to try to speed up the process and help its own staff. Last year there were about 4,000 claims. Two thirds are being, or have already been, agreed—sometimes with compensation in cash but mostly in repairs—and British Coal tells me that nearly all the backlog should be cleared by the end of 1989. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Mansfield accepts that, but I am happy to put it on record that that is what I have been told by British Coal.
Let me make a few brief points about the Waddilove recommendations. I congratulate the Government on commissioning the report and accepting many of its recommendations. I note that the hon. Member for Mansfield also did that to some extent. I look forward to the legislation replacing and supplementing the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957 and the subsidence provisions of the Coal Industry Act 1985. In particular, it is clearly sensible that it should be the norm for compensation to be in the form of repairs rather than cash. It also seems to me that the extra efforts announced by the Government to build defences against subsidence into new buildings in mining areas represent an important trend in the right direction. It is also sensible of British Coal to make a contingent liability of likely subsidence costs in the five-year programme for each colliery.
I should like the Minister to clarify two points. The first, which has already been raised, relates to the six-year limit and the statute of limitation. I note from the Government's proposals that the yardstick to be used is
three years from the time when the claimant had reasonable grounds for believing subsidence had occurred."
I understand that most subsidence is evident after two years, but I would welcome the Minister's confirmation that where that is not the case this three-year rule will take precedence over the six-year rule. That would seem to me to resolve many of the concerns expressed on this issue
—not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) and the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale).
Secondly, paragraph 50 of the consultation paper, which deals with home loss payments, refers to the assessment of the value of the property that has been damaged with reference to rateable value. Have the Government yet decided what alternative method to use when the community charge is introduced? It would be most helpful to hear anything that my hon. Friend the Minister has to say on that matter.
I shall be brief, because I know that many of my hon. Friends from mining communities wish to speak. I urge the Minister as strongly as I possibly can not to turn down the appeal made so excellently by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) but to consider all the facts and come back with constructive proposals for dealing with a whole series of injustices that still continues and which is becoming more serious in some respects. I plead with the Government not to come forward with a ready-made reply but to examine the individual cases and consider the problem to be dealt with.
Since I have represented Ebbw Vale, I have dealt with scores of subsidence cases. My experience is that, over the past few years, British Coal—and before it the National Coal Board—has become a good deal more mean and estrictive in dealing with the problem. That derives partly from the instructions that the Coal Board was given some years ago when Mr. MacGregor arrived. He never thought that it was part of the business of the Coal Board to deal with extraneous matters—if this can be considered an extraneous matter. Part of the change of attitude dates from his arrival.
Despite the efforts of some of the people on the spot—I do not blame them—it is clear from individual cases that there is pressure from the top of British Coal to make the whole business much more restrictive. That is the first reason why I urge the Minister to consider the individual cases. Several of us could add many more such cases to the list. By the way, we are talking not only about individual householders, although in some respects they suffer more severely than anyone else. If the Government have any interest in small businesses, they should recognise the dangers. Some businesses have taken great risks in establishing themselves and then found themselves subject to this special difficulty.
Let me illustrate my argument that the Government should consider the whole matter. I hope that the Minister will report to the Secretary of State for Wales on this subject and that the Secretary of State for Wales will include in the statement that he is to make tomorrow a reference to subsidence and its effects on the valley towns. We have urged this upon him and we think that one cannot have a proper valid initiative that does not include proposals for dealing with subsidence problems as a major feature.
The village of Troedrhiwgwair in my constituency provides a remarkable illustration of the problem. The villagers feared that the mountain was going to move. After the Aberfan disaster, there was a great fear that the inhabitants would have to be moved, and the council properly made arrangements for people to move if they wanted to, but some of the residents were determined to stay there. Despite the local council's perfectly proper decsion to proceed with a compulsory takeover order, the villagers decided to stay and fight for their homes, as they had every right to do. Following the inspection, the Secretary of State for Wales came down on the side of the villagers, and all honour goes to them for the way in which they fought their case.
But that is only part of the problem. If the problem is to be solved, there must be sufficient money for the necessary repairs to be carried out so that the inspector's decision, approved by the Secretary of State, can be properly put into effect. The case was widely discussed throughout Wales, and there was a full inspection. The more it was discussed, the clearer it became that mining communities faced special problems from the threat of subsidence or landslips in one form or another. In dozens of cases in my constituency, landslips are a real peril. We must have more money and determination to deal with the problem.
I would rather the Minister gave no answer today than hear him retail to the House whatever British Coal happens to be saying at the moment. I hope that he will consider the series of individual injustices cited in the debate and come forward with a comprehensive policy to deal with the real and widespread danger of subsidence, both in the industrial sphere and for individual householders.
I echo the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) to the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) for giving the House this opportunity to discuss again the whole problem of coal mining subsidence and the injustice of current compensation procedures.
I go further, and pay tribute also to my hon. Friend the Minister for his particular interest in the subject and for being a moving force in ensuring that the Government responded as positively as they did on 29 April by producing their consultation paper. To me, that suggests that legislation is contemplated—indeed, is in the pipeline. During the next Session of Parliament, therefore, I hope to contribute to proceedings on a Bill embodying in a constructive and lasting form the ideas advanced from both sides today.
As the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) will confirm, on 19 March 1982 I introduced the Coal Mining Subsidence (Fair Compensation) Bill. Like other right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, I was also pleased to submit evidence to the Waddilove committee. I must declare an interest, as I did on that occasion, in that I am a vice-president of the Building Societies Association, and I know that subsidence is a matter of particular concern to national and regional, and especially to local, building societies in the east and west midlands and in the Yorkshire coalfield area.
I am concerned that the Department has not gone far enough in a number of respects. The present law has remained unaltered for some 30 years and gives British Coal considerable discretion in the treatment of claims for compensation which, in my view, falls well short of providing adequate protection for the interests of individual home owners, tenants, business men, farmers and smallholders, whose property is often damaged beyond repair. With the threat of both seam mining and opencast mining activity hanging over large areas of the country for many years to come, proper notice of such activity and full compensation for consequential losses, especially for agricultural land, must be made available in the United Kingdom, as it is in all other European countries.
I am glad to see from paragraphs 79 and 83 of the consultation paper that due regard is now being paid —and, I hope, will shortly be enshrined in legislation—to damage to chattels, home loss payments, depreciation of crops, farm loss payments and additional compensation for tenant farmers. I welcome that, but I do not welcome paragraph 5:
The Waddilove committee carried out a thorough analysis of the compensation scheme as it then stood"—
and had stood for 30 years—
They recognised that the main thrust of existing provisions was right, but identified certain shortcomings. They did not call for a radical revision or overhaul o f the system as operated by British Coal, but for administrative changes, many of which have now been made by British Coal."
It is on that point that I should like to share my views with my hon. Friend the Minister.
Hon. Members on both sides will know that certain legal obligations are devolved to British Coal to make good or compensate for damage caused by subsidence and mining activities, but broadly speaking those obligations relate only to damage to land and buildings. The legal obligation on British Coal is too loosely defined and, in my view, Mr. and Mrs. John Citizen are not adequately protected in law and will not be adequately protected if the proposals in the consultative document are enshrined in law. Nor can they necessarily be assured of receiving fair compensation for damage to businesses, property, farms and smallholdings or for nuisance or disturbance, as would be the case if their properties stood in the way of a bypass or motorway project.
The reason for that is simple. British Coal has a duty to compensate the public according to a code of practice, but the code of practice has no standing in law. I hope that in any Bill which comes forward the code will be enshrined in law. At present, it is capable of being interpreted for the convenience of British Coal and cannot readily be challenged by an aggrieved house owner, business man, farmer or smallholder who may be unfamiliar with the nooks and crannies of compensation law.
If your back garden was taken for road widening, for a bypass or for a motorway, Madam Deputy Speaker, under the Land Compensation Act 1973 you would have the right to have your fees paid, regardless of your financial circumstances, and to have your case discussed and negotiated on behalf of both parties—the Department of Transport, and yourself as a private citizen—by an independent arbitrator known as the district valuer, whose job it would be to bring both parties together.
My concern is that, in this instance, unlike any other application for compensation, British Coal has—and, if I read the consultative document correctly, will continue to have—wide discretion as to how and when compensation is to be paid. It thus has a psychological advantage over individual tenants and home owners, often with small terraced or semi-detached houses, who are unfamiliar with the nooks and crannies of the law.
That discretion allows British Coal to act as both judge and jury. I believe that that is wrong, and I hope that the point will be taken on board by my hon. Friend the Minister. Between now and drafting the Bill, I hope that he will give serious consideration to ensuring that this basic change—not an administrative change, but a structural change—is incorporated in the Bill.
Judging from the heart-rending correspondence that my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth), and I receive, as I am sure do many other hon. Members, British Coal often seems to offer compensation on a take-it-orleave-it basis. It is a large, forbidding Government body and the individual voice is perhaps not heard with the same sympathy, understanding and respect as it would be if the individual were represented by a qualified surveyor, valuer, solicitor or other person capable of prosecuting the case in the same professional, technical valuation language used by the coal board itself.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as it is unlikely that my contribution will be reached and this is an important point. The proposal that these matters should go before a tribunal would mean that the aggrieved party could not obtain legal aid as well. Whereas, previously, an aggrieved party could go to the county court and perhaps obtain legal aid, that possibility will be denied to people in the future. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an important factor in the recommendations?
As one would expect, as a lawyer, my hon. Friend has raised a particularly interesting point, and it enables me to identify another matter. I agree with what he has said, but a more fundamental point undermines his intervention. That is that an individual may refer to the lands tribunal only on a point of law. Disagreement with the compensation put on the table by British Coal's valuer is not a matter of dispute that can be put to the lands tribunal. Therefore, as a court of appeal, the lands tribunal is not a satisfactory solution to the problem. The only way for Mr. and Mrs. John Citizen to get a fair hearing is by negotiations being conducted by an independent party. That independent party must be the district valuer.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on his second point about legal aid. One cannot obtain legal aid to refer a matter to the lands tribunal. But, in the parallel that I drew to your attention, Madam Deputy Speaker—that of your garden being taken for road widening—whatever your financial circumstances, you would be entitled to have your fees paid by the acquiring authority. Over and above the compensation offered there would be no question of you, or Mr. and Mrs. John Citizen, being out of pocket because of the activities of British Coal or the other acquiring authority.
I draw the Minister's attention to the code of practice. If it is to be enshrined in law, I invite him to agree that the booklet advising compensation applicants should be better drafted than it is at present. Under the heading "How to make claims under the Act", it asks:
Will the repairs always restore the property completely to its condition before the damage?"
The answer states:
No. In most cases the Coal Board's obligation is to do such repairs and re-decorations as are needed to make the property reasonably fit for its use at the time that the damage occurred.
Who is to say what was the state of the property when the damage occurred? Who is to define "reasonably fit"? I understand that, in a fair and equitable society, the basis of compensation is to restore property to its original state, or, if that is not possible, fully to compensate the owner. Therefore, prior notification is absolutely vital to give the person whose property is affected the opportunity to seek professional advice, to prepare a schedule of condition as the property exists, and to be prepared before any damage is suffered. When damage is suffered, a schedule of dilapidations should be prepared, one document compared with the other, and compensation based on the extent of the damage.
With those few remarks, I repeat my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Minister for his positive attitude in bringing forward the consultative paper. I am sure that he will take on board my suggestions, in the hope that the forthcoming Bill—which I hope is not yet cast in bureaucratic stone—is capable of some amendment before it comes to the House for its first and subsequent readings.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). In the year that he has been an hon. Member he has shown extreme assiduousness in presenting his campaign. All credit is due to him. One seventh of my constituents live within the Mansfield district council boundaries. I shall not attempt to repeat the excellent case that my hon. Friend made, but I stress that the forthcoming Bill will primarily affect owner-occupiers who, in no small way, have been urged by the Government to buy their houses. In particular, I refer to council tenants.
For two or three years, a poor woman in my constituency has been going around in circles solely because she took the Government's advice and bought her council house. Her name is Mrs. Morley, of 68 Laurel avenue, Warsop. For two and a half years, she has kept quiet and asked me not to publicise her case, but, on this occasion, she has given me permission to do so. In case the Minister wants to telephone her, her telephone number is Mansfield 846932. Hers is a special case. Her husband has Crohn's disease. He will never work again. He is only in his 40s. He worked at Welbeck colliery. Despite their circumstances, they took the Government's advice and bought their council house.
Their income is £86 a week. They took out a mortgage for a mere £5,000. They got the house at a discount. Within a couple of years, it started to crack. There were cracks in the walls, the ceiling started to come away from the walls, ties had to be put into the bricks, and the floor sloped so badly it was like a ship's deck. They cannot decorate or hang curtains. The central heating pipes and joints are bending and cracking. The house is in a deplorable state. Quite frankly, it is worthless. No building society would provide a mortgage for somebody to buy that poor couple's house. They are saddled with a mortgage on an ex-council house that is not worth tuppence, because they took the Government's advice to buy their council house.
They cannot get compensation from the Coal Board, because the Coal Board has already paid it. It paid it to the council 15 years ago. Therefore, the Coal Board says, "We will not pay it again. There has been no coal working since 1959." Mansfield district council, which has been helpful, was asked, "Will you buy the house back?" It said, "We cannot." The Government's legislation will not allow it to buy it back. The Government's legislation stopped it refusing to sell it in the first place. The council knew that the house was in a dodgy area, but, because of the Government's legislation on council house sales, it could not refuse to sell the house. That poor woman's house, at the junction of two major fissures, is worth nothing.
The hon. Gentleman is making his case well. At the time of selling the house, was there not an obligation on the council to make it clear to the potential purchasers that it was in an area in which there had been coal workings and that further subsidence was likely? Therefore, the price to the tenants should have reflected that, and they should have taken it into account in their considerations.
They are not daft. They live within half a mile of the pit. They know that it is in a coal mining area. The council sold it for £5,000. How cheaply can one buy a house? That does not prevent the poor woman from being in such a predicament.
What did she do? She went to the insurance company. When owner-occupiers buy their houses, as I and other hon. Members did, they must take out insurance. The building society that lends the mortgage says that one must insure the house. When they go to the insurance companies and say, "Our house is falling apart, and there are cracks in the walls," the insurance companies do not want to know. They find some small print, stating that the company is not responsible for land slip or, in the case of subsidence, the owners must spend the first £3,000. There are other clauses and get-outs. That is the situation that that lady faces.
I took the case to the ombudsman, and said, "This poor woman has been led astray by all sorts of people. She has an invalid husband who cannot get about. He is on mobility allowance. She cannot sell their house. What will you do about it?" The ombudsman said, "I cannot do anything. No law has been broken." I went back to the council and asked, "Will you provide her with another council house?" The council said yes. The woman said that she would be happy to move into another council house and board up her present house. But the council must charge her rent. To get into a decent house, she will finish up still paying the mortgage on a house that is not worth anything and paying rent to the council.
It is a Catch 22 situation. The buck has been passed in circles. She asked the council, "Will you write off the mortgage?" It said, "We cannot. In any case, if we do, there will be another 100 ex-council houses in the area with the same problem." Hon. Members know, as anyone does in a coal mining area, that once one hears a whiff of the word "subsidence" a terrible fear comes into the area. Often the owner-occupiers in that area say, "Please, Mr. Ashton" or "Mr. Skinner" or "Mr. Meale. Do not make a fuss. Do not tell the television or the newspapers. Do not name our street or nobody will want to buy the houses." Then they have to set to with a bit of anaglypta, Polyfilla, plaster or cement. Cement rendering is applied and everyone is walking on eggshells. They are in this Catch 22 situation.
I have advised council tenants in Warsop—my part of Mansfield—under no circumstances to buy their council houses. They would be daft. It is nothing to do with politics. A lot of the tenants have taken the trouble to have an extra survey carried out on their council house before buying, which in some cases has cost £200. The surveyor has then said, "All right, you are going to get the council house for £5,000 or £6,000, but it will cost £18,000 to put the house right." That is without any guarantee of a penny from the Coal Board.
In that kind of situation, the Government have a 100 per cent. moral, and almost legal, duty to bail out those people who have bought their council houses in those circumstances. They have already introduced legislation for defective houses, where they have said, "Okay, they took our advice and bought defective Coal Board houses and council houses which were built of a certain construction. In those cases, we will pay the grants and recompense those people for taking our advice on buying council houses." The Government have not said anything about people who have bought council houses and then discovered that they were not covered for any subsidence compensation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield said in his admirable introduction, there is a need for at least two or three measures. There has to be some sort of independent tribunal which can adjudicate without—with respect to the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle)—tenants having to pay high fees to surveyors and other people cashing in by charging £100 just to have a look at the house. It must be some kind of independent tribunal to which local councils, British Coal or the occupiers can take their case and get a fair deal.
There must be a register. I am happy to say that on Friday I attended a meeting in Mansfield, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield and the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart). We heard that six district councils are joining together, and when they send out the voting registration forms in October, there will be a letter included saying, "Has your house ever had any problems with subsidence? Will you tell us whether you have made a claim and what happened to it? What is the procedure you have gone through? How much did it cost? Were you happy with the service from the Coal Board? That scheme will cost £30,000.
Mansfield district council has had to underwrite £30,000 to call in Trent polytechnic and universities to prepare a proper report, because nobody knows the extent of the problem. Some of those areas are sitting on a San Andreas fault such as is found in California. If it was an earthquake or a volcano, there would have to be Government intervention. When there was a hurricane last October, and trees were blown down, the Government quickly found £15 million for 15 million trees, or whatever the total was, to be put back again. This matter concerns people who have taken the Government's advice.
I close with this point, because many of my hon. Friends want to make a contribution. The Minister said earlier that the coal industry would not be privatised before the next election. However, if the Tories win—I do not think they will—and try to sell off the pits, they will have great difficulty in selling to anybody with this kind of open-ended compensation commitment hanging over the industry. No one will want to take these houses on. It is a major problem, affecting not just north Nottinghamshire and my constituency, but many others, in Wales and elsewhere.
As yet, no one knows the extent of the problem. No one knows the number of houses involved and the compensation necessary. There is no machinery to find out those facts. It is a downright disgrace that ordinary decent people, who have taken the Government's advice to become owner-occupiers, have found themselves in the same kind of situation as Mrs. Morley. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) said that he did not want any answers today. I hope we get some answers today, as we might not get any in the months to come.
I too would like to thank the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) for raising this subject and to welcome the efforts that he has made to rectify the subsidence problems. From my experience of dealing with constituents' cases, it strikes me that the major problem relating to British Coal and subsidence is the use of the six-year limitation rule. I am told that in the old days British Coal used a 12-year rule, but in recent years it has been told by its lawyers that it can get away with a six-year rule. That means that virtually no subsidence claims are accepted in my constituency, because most of the workings took place some years ago.
British Coal has used its six-year rule ruthlessly. It has only really agreed to settle claims which might have arisen more than six years ago in instances where the claimant might qualify for legal aid. In instances where people have, none the less, taken British Coal to court, it has always settled generously before a judgment has been made, to prevent a precedent being created. However, I say to the hon. Member for Mansfield that when Councillor Brian Eley of Amber Valley district council suggested that Mansfield district council, Amber Valley district council and the other councils concerned should join together to take a test case to court and ensure that it was fought to a conclusion so that a precedent was created, I understand that Mansfield district council and the other councils concerned were not willing to join Amber Valley to fight such a test case.
It could be argued that one cannot blame British Coal for getting away with what it can within the law. After all, any commercial company—British Coal is no different —has a right to make as big a return as possible. However, I feel that the inadequate laws which have allowed British Coal to get away with this has caused a great deal of misery and anguish. All hon. Members can quote examples from their constituencies. I will briefly quote two cases just to bring home to hon. Members that this matter has caused immense problems.
A couple called the Allsopps in Heanor in my constituency had a claim accepted in 1972. However, they were told that a further claim in 1986 for damage which had arisen subsequently was out of time. As they did not qualify for legal aid, they were up the proverbial creek. An even worse situation arose for a Mr. R. Cook of Marlpool in my constituency. There were workings under Marlpool between 1938 and 1960 and Mr. Cook successfully claimed for subsidence in 1960. However, when he claimed in 1984 for a massive tilt which had occurred since 1960, liability was denied. He is now unable to sell his house, which is tilting so much that one thinks one is on a ship when one visits him.
I believe that the Government's proposals show that a major improvement is on the way, because from my understanding of the new three-year rule—the Minister will no doubt confirm this—it is proposed that claims will be accepted, not just three years after workings have ceased, but up to three years after the claimant could reasonably have noticed that that work would need to be carried out. That is a significant and major improvement, which seems to have escaped the notice of Opposition Members.
My hon. Friend has given an illustration of a case that is common to all of us who have mining constituencies, but which is not covered by the Government's scheme or the Government's proposals. The example my hon. Friend has given is where compensation has already been paid and then there is further damage 20 years afterwards as a result of the same mining. There is nothing in the Government's proposals that covers secondary damage. As my hon. Friend knows, there is a rule that once compensation has been paid in respect of a claim, that is it, once and for all. Does my hon. Friend not agree that in exceptional circumstances the Coal Board and the Government should propose that subsequent discovery of damage from the same source should also be covered by compensation?
My hon. Friend, who has a great deal of experience in these matters, is right. However, I would welcome confirmation from the Minister of the exact position. If there has already been a compensation payment for earlier damage, under the new three-year rule will people be allowed to make a second claim for subsequent damage which emerges at a later date? That is a key point, because the three-year rule will only be effective in helping people if it can be used more than once. Justice dictates that that should be the case.
My other queries relate to the proposal to give British Coal the right to require developers to take preventive action when building new structures to ensure that subsequent subsidence does not damage those structures. I should like to raise two points. First, I sincerely hope that some provision will be made to ensure that British Coal makes its submissions quickly so that developments are not unfairly delayed by bureaucratic problems at British Coal. Secondly, if British Coal makes such proposals, it is only fair that it is British Coal, not the developers or their subsequent customers, that bears the cost.
I believe that in the Government's proposals we have the kernel of what could be a major improvement on what has been a grossly unsatisfactory and unjust situation. At the very least, the proposals will be some improvement. I sincerely hope that when he replies to the debate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will give some indication that there will be justice for those people who need to claim for subsequent damage after they have made an initial claim. I hope that they will be covered by the new proposals.
I shall be brief, in the interests of the other hon. Members who wish to speak. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on the selection of this subject and on his contribution, which was first-class and which, as far as I am concerned, has opened up the field in relation to this nationwide problem in the coal mining industry.
I get the impression that Conservative Members favour what is coming. They obviously know what is coming but I will not know until I see it, and I do not know whether it will he of any help to the people I represent.
The young hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) has not lived yet. He does not know what the mining industry is about, what work is about or what this place is about. He has yet to live, but he will find out. When he read his speech, I got the impression that it had been written by Sir whatever-his-name-is, the chairman of British Coal.
I want to put a message across about the seriousness of this situation. The Government do not come off well. There is no doubt that in the past this Government made a big mistake because the cost of meeting mining subsidence nationally came from central funds. However, this Administration then changed the rules. The Minister is frowning, but he has not been in that job long and he is learning. A Minister before him changed the rules so that the cost of mining subsidence had to be borne by the pit and the area that caused it. The end result fitted in with the Government's policy on pit closures. I used to have nine pits in my constituency, but now there are only four. The cost of mining subsidence made pits uneconomic. The Government were well on their horses to get rid of the mining industry in my constituency and in others. It all fits in with the Government's privatisation programme. Never mind what the Minister says—the Government are preparing the way for privatisation by using mining subsidence.
I should like to give one or two examples. Hundreds of compensation cases in my constituency have been rejected, yet the hon. Member for Gedling talked about the progress that has been made. He said, "The claims will be gone by 1989." Yes, they will be gone all right—they will have been disqualified, just as happened in the past. That is how British Coal will get rid of the claims.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent ( Mr. Foot) was right when he said that the real problems began when MacGregor became chairman of the National Coal Board. Opposition Members gave fair warning in the Chamber that he should not have been appointed because of the problems that would be created.
In one road in my constituency, containing about 120 properties, every compensation case has been settled over a period, except for two which have been described as out of time. That is scandalous and ridiculous. If the people concerned approach the Minister, he does not want to know. He says, "Go back to British Coal. It is British Coal's responsibility." However, when people go to the Coal Board, the Coal Board says, "The Government must change the legislation." Who is the piggy in the middle? It is the Member of Parliament and his constituent, the complainant, who has bought a house that is falling down.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) said, the Government encouraged such people to buy, but the houses are now falling down and our constituents have lost their money. They do not know where the hell they are, so they go to their Member of Parliament's constituency surgery to see whether he can help them. The result is a debate such as this, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield.
I do not trust the lands tribunal. It is another arm of the Government. It is linked to the Government, but it should be totally independent. The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle) was correct to say that there is a need for somebody or some body to be totally independent of the Government and of British Coal. However, that body should have a connection with Members of Parliament so that we can feed in the necessary information on behalf of our constituents so that they get a fair deal.
In conclusion—I said that I would be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker—I have read the Waddilove report. I am sure that all hon. Members have read it, because we all have problems in our constituencies. An elderly lady in my constituency made a claim and the board said, "No, we are not going to settle but we will do a bit of patching and decorating. We are coming underneath again. We do not meet the claim twice." As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw has pointed out, the NCB does not pay twice. However, it admitted that it would go there again. It came again, all right, and when it had finished the lady made a claim. The Coal Board said, "Sorry, you are out of time." Those are the arguments being used by British Coal at present. It should come off it because the Waddilove report makes it clear that claimants have not had a fair deal with the mining subsidence programme. Indeed, I see a theme of fairness in the Waddilove report.
The Secretary of State should be sitting at the Dispatch Box listening to this debate. He is probably down at Weymouth enjoying himself in the sunshine on the beach. He should be here listening to an important debate about an important problem in our constituencies. I look forward to the legislation if it is going to help my constituents. If it is right, I will back the Government, but if it is not, I will kick and kick and kick just as I have done previously.
I shall be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, and am grateful that you have called me. This is an excellent subject for a debate —because all of us with mining constituencies have to deal with subsidence problems time and time again.
The first point that I should like to make is that the Coal Board is not all bad. It is often very good. I can give examples of cases in which the Coal Board—or rather, British Coal—has acted quickly, bravely, strongly and well, in financial terms. The village of Oakthorpe in my constituency had a fire smouldering underground. The coal was on fire and many houses in the villages were subsiding. I can only praise British Coal for the manner in which it acted. It brought its engineers to the village swiftly to assess the situation. It spent millions of pounds and dug out the burning coal. Now, two years later, the village can only be described as a model village. So British Coal is not all bad. It does some good things and sometimes acts honourably.
However, there are times when British Coal falls from grace, sometimes in the most scandalous way. We have heard examples of that today. We must realise that we are talking about the exceptional powers enjoyed by the Coal Board. What other authority has the right to mine underneath one's house, to cause damage to one's property and then to say, "I am going to be judge and jury about that."?
British Coal is in an exceptional position. One would have thought that, as it has such powers, at the very least it would treat those who have suffered in the way that other people would expect to be treated if they had suffered damage. For example, if a car had knocked someone over or been driven fast down a hill, through a wall and into a house, negligence claims would be made in the courts. There would be a six-year period for claims or a claim in three years following the discovery of that damage. However, that does not apply to mining subsidence. British Coal has been the judge and jury in its own cause for a long time.
At long last, the Waddilove report has appeared and the Government's responses to that report in the White Paper are very good. The Government are looking at the civil law and the way in which an honourable party should behave—the way in which the Coal Board should behave. However, the Government must go further than that. We are not talking about a car being driven into a house. We are not talking about normal damage claims; we are concerned about exceptional behaviour involving undermining property.
If damage occurs to a property, a claim may be made. However, 20 or 30 years later, more subsidence might occur and another claim might be required. Compensation must be paid in such a case. British Coal must pay for or repair any subsequent damage even though it has paid for the first lot of damage.
We must remember that we are dealing with very simple people who are not used to going to law. They may have put all their savings into a house, and subsidence may prove to be a major claim. Subsidence may loom very large in their lives. Those people need help. At the outset, they should be encouraged to have a schedule of condition prepared on their property. They should be encouraged to get expert advice. British Coal should tell those people that it will not deal with them unless they have received independent advice. British Coal should tell them who will provide that advice, and British Coal should pay for it.
No; those people may simply need the advice of a surveyor. However, they need independent advice.
Time after time, people have come to my surgeries for help. They have not sought independent advice, and they have not received the proper compensation. Their affairs tend to be in a complete mess in connection with problems with British Coal over subsidence claims. Their affairs are in a mess because they have not received independent advice. British Coal should put money aside to provide that advice.
We must remember that a mine is only as profitable as the cost of mining. Part of the cost of mining must include claims for subsidence in respect of a mine. We are not talking about an open-ended book, and there are two sides to the equation to determine whether a mine is profitable.
British Coal must include the cost of subsidence claims in its equation when it decides whether to mine in an area. Having done that, it should go out of its way to offer help and independent advice to people whose homes may suffer from subsidence.
If we are to have a lands tribunal, it is absolutely essential that legal aid should be extended. That may not be the ordinary legal aid scheme. British Coal should put a fund aside to legally aid people who go to the lands tribunal. There are plenty of precedents for that. Many other bodies provide such legal aid, and British Coal should put money aside for it.
In view of the excellent recommendations that change the rules under which British Coal operates, what possible reason or justification can there be for those rules not to prevail now? If the Government are to make those recommendations, the rules should apply to British Coal now. If we wait for legislation, people will run out of time. That would be unfair and unjust. The whole purpose of recommendations is to be just and fair.
If we are to be just and fair, the legislation must include backdating. That legislation should at least date back to when the White Paper was produced or—even better—when the Waddilove committee was established. It is wrong that someone who is entitled to make a claim now might have three years in which to make a claim from the moment that they become aware that the damage has been caused, because the rules are to change—that provision will apply once the legislation is introduced—while other people will be aware that time is running out as they anticipate the legislation being introduced. There can be nothing more unjust than that. There must be some backdating in future and we must be fair and just.
I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), who would normally have dealt with this debate. He has suffered a slight accident about which I was unaware until Saturday. He is immobile. The debate will be poorer without his expertise on these matters. In those circumstances, I apologise to the Minister because I must leave early to attend another engagement.
I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), as all other hon. Members have done, on choosing an excellent subject, which has found echoes of support from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber in its references to justice for constituents. This matter hs clearly caused considerable concern for some time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) said, the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield was excellent. It showed the expertise, detail and example which the House likes and which shows the House at its best.
The argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield requires an answer from the Government. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) said that perhaps the Minister does not want to be pushed into answering at the moment. From my brief reading on this subject, preparing for the debate, I can see that the Government have been pressed for some time in various reports to produce answers to these questions about justice for people affected by subsidence caused by British Coal.
The speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield confirmed that he has established a reputation for hard work and research on behalf of his constituents, in this case against a big corporation. I know that this is not the first fight that my hon. Friend has had with British Coal. He achieved a victory with other hon. Members in his area in preventing the Coal Board from privatising its houses in that area. I am aware of the tough style of the Coal Board management in the area and I know that it is no mean feat to battle against that management. My hon. Friend will work well for his constituents, as he has shown in his short time in the House.
The debate has clearly reflected the concern among hon. Members on both sides of the House about the issues. I had a brief read through the Waddilove report today. I have also read the reports from the Select Committee on Energy, which places pressure on the Government to act. I have seen the White Paper, produced in response to Select Committee pressure.
The consultative report states that the Goverment are likely to bring in more legislation, presumably to give force to what is already a code of practice. We have heard complaints from hon. Members that the code of practice is not adequate. It appears that the Government have accepted the argument for legislation, and that is reflected in the White Paper. Can the Minister give us any idea when we can expect the legislaton that he has promised to deliver?
The issues reflected in this debate, in the various reports including the Waddilove report, and the reports from the Select Committees are about balance.
Balance is the one aspect that really concerns the House —a balance between the rights and responsibilities of the individual versus, in this case, British Coal; a balance of justice in the payment of compensation; and a balance in the fairness of treatment. From the examples given by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, it was clear that there is not a proper balance of justice in those matters. The various recommendations for correcting that situation, which hon. Members have mentioned show that there is a long way to go before one will be achieved.
There is also the question of delay, as was also pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield. I was astounded to hear of the legal costs involved, although perhaps of late we should not be astounded about the level of such costs. I refer to the costs of tribunals. One member of the public in Leicester, and another in Mansfield, seeking to put a case before a tribunal each paid something between £100,000 and £150,000 to have their compensation increased to a level marginally beyond that offered by the board. That is an exorbitant amount of money for anyone wishing to use the tribunal system.
The report raises serious questions about whether the tribunal system is satisfactory. I note also that the Government are aware that very few people use tribunals. Cost, as well as the question of delay, must be in the minds of many people already suffering from anxiety and stress in their desire to repair properties damaged by subsidence.
It is clear that there is an absence of equality among the parties concerned. A number of individuals have already complained that British Coal has exploited its power and that they have very limited rights compared with the board. However, I acknowledge also that many people have reached an amicable agreement with British Coal. My concern is where injustice may be perpetrated. Parliament should concern itself with arriving at a framework of law which will give a balance between the individual and a public corporation.
The same argument is equally applicable in the case of a private corporation, and that may be relevant if it is the Government's intention to privatise the British coal industry. The balance achieved in moving from codes, recommendations, a sense of fairness, and what lawyers call "acting reasonably" may prove insufficient, and there should be statutory enforcement in respect of certain aspects of the codes, as recommended by some reports. The same concern was expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield and for Ashfield. They argued that it should be clear both now and in the future that, whatever happens to this industry, there exists a responsibility to fund the compensation necessary for those seeking damages arising from subsidence.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield made the point that the situation is becoming more acute, because the uncertainty which prevails has been increased by announcements of Government policies in other areas affecting the coal industry. Recent statements about opencast developments will reduce local authonties' rights, which one or two hon. Members have already pointed out are already limited.
If planning controls are to be reduced, and if local authorities are to have even fewer rights, the rights of individuals to pursue, through local authority planning inquiries, information and compensation will be further reduced. The removal of mineral rights advocated by the Government in view of their possible privatisation programme, under which those rights will be taken from one body and given to a number of others, will also cause uncertainty, until the Government's intentions are clear.
Overriding all that, and at the head of the Government's own basic policy towards coal, is the industry's possible privatisation. Past examples have shown that a privatised company is not given the same regulatory and economic framework as that of a nationalised industry. A privatised company is concerned with operating with fewer controls and maximising profits, with very little sense of social obligation. At Question Time, we heard the Minister make clear yet again his beliefs concerning the bureaucracy of controls, when he compared the controls he is prepared to reduce in respect of a privatised nuclear industry with the situation in America.
In considering controls and social obligations, one should be able to expect of public companies a better standard than that of a private sector company. The reports clearly show that there are inadequacies in that respect and that one needs to establish a legal framework by which the rights of the individual may be properly adjusted. That is the clear message from this debate.
A number of other issues have been raised, and given the short time available to me, I will comment only briefly on one or two of them. The question of compensation raises the whole subject of liability. There is something to be said for the claim by a number of hon. Members that the question of assessing the full extent of any damage and liability has not yet been resolved. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield commented that a study was under way in Nottingham to catalogue the extent of the problem. As someone who is new to this subject, I find it amazing, given that the problem has been with us so long, that such an effort has not been made before and that information is not readily available.
I was amazed to learn that members of the public cannot find out from an authority exactly what are its. plans or what damage had been caused to an affected property. I was appalled to discover that even claims whose registration I understand the Government still reject could not be recorded somewhere so that, by making a search, an individual could establish whether a property had suffered any subsidence damage. The Government, in their consultative document, have rejected that proposal, which is wrong. People should have all the information available to them in making a proper assessment, and I add my voice to those who advocate a proper procedure.
There are also conflicting views as to how long liability should last—be it three, six or 12 years—and about establishing the period in which damage must be declared, which might conflict with the time at which the damage itself arose. I was impressed by the case put for extending liability to all matters of consequential loss, which is one of the proposals the Government are now considering. However, it is not clear whether British Coal should have placed on it an obligation which is not imposed on others in analogous circumstances. That aspect is not properly explained. What are the same or similar circumstances which the Minister has in mind? How limited will be the liability compared with the six or 12-year period we have discussed? Perhaps the Minister can give the House further information.
I am persuaded by those who argue that there is a national responsibility and a strong argument for a national fund with the resources available to guarantee justice. It follows that such a fund should be separately administered. If it is the Government's intention to privatise the industry, it is all the more important that there is an independent, separately funded body for that purpose. The Government do not totally accept that British Coal should carry all the cost. The Select Committee's report rejected the view that British Coal should not carry any part of the cost of subsidence, but it also rejected the Government's view that their sole concern was the taxation cost. I do not have time to quote from paragraph 161 of the Select Committee's report, but it said that there should be a balance between the two—and that balance probably represents a cost far greater than the industry should carry.
It is amazing to discover from the Select Committee's report how much subsidence costs add to the price of a tonne of coal—particularly in an area such as Nottingham. In 1983, it was about £1·11p, but it has risen nine times to about £9·58. That is an extraordinary cost for any industry to carry·whatever may be considered to be its fair share of that amount.
The Government have given the industry a rather fair economic framework, designed to cut it down to size in readiness for privatisation, to a level at which it will become profitable—and therefore attract the resources for which the Government hope. I hope that the Government will address themselves to the problems I have described, because otherwise they will either deter people from purchasing the industry—and there is something to be said for that—or there will be attempts to cut costs, leaving even fewer resources to ensure a balance of justice.
Having heard about the costs of arbitration for the lands tribunals and the time involved, I feel that there is an argument for independent local adjudication. I noted that the Government mentioned that as a proposition in the White Paper, but they did not follow it through in the consultative document. I hope that the Minister will say something about it now.
On the issue of repair versus compensation, I favour what seems to be the majority view—shared by the Government—that the emphasis should be on repair. We already know the arguments, but I wonder whether the Minister can tell us whether he intends to do anything to assist local authorities—which have tremendous problems in this regard—to obtain extra resources to deal with their housing estates. There is a legitimate argument for such action. I know that it conflicts with the local authority financing arguments, and that it involves another Department. Nevertheless, I should like to hear what the Government have to say.
I have offered the House merely a few observations based on a limited amount of research and judgment. I think, however, that it is agreed on both sides of the House that this is a question of justice, and that a proper balance must be achieved—one that puts more emphasis on statutory enforcement, so that an individual can exercise his right when his property is damaged by subsidence.
Today's debate gives hon. Members an opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the serious and often distressing circumstances that constituents must endure as a result of damage to their properties by mining subsidence. I should like first to thank the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), who used his good fortune in the ballot to choose this subject for debate. The timing is right, as the Government's response to the Waddilove report, published in a White Paper last October, is still open for comment.
Since I was elected to the House more than five years ago, I have received hundreds of letters—and a similar number of visits to my advice surgeries—from constituents complaining about British Coal's attitude, lack of progress and outright rejection of their subsidence claims. None the less, I must be fair to British Coal and say also that many claims have been satisfactorily concluded.
The problem faced by my constituents and myself is that, in Nottinghamshire, British Coal has changed, the rules and moved the goal posts when it is in its interests to do so. A blatant example of that was the reduction in the time limit for claims to be made from 12 years to six. If a claim had been lodged but not yet processed, it was just the claimant's bad luck. Offers of compensation were withdrawn after serious financial irregularities were uncovered in Nottinghamshire during 1983–84.
The only redress available to my constituents is the right to appeal to the lands tribunal. That was satisfactory when it was introduced many years ago, but in the past few years the average cost per case heard has risen to about £15,000. That is not much of an incentive for claimants to rush there for justice.
A change to a simple and cheap system of recourse for claimants is long overdue. That is why I welcome the White Paper published in response to the Waddilove report, in which the Government make it clear that they are determined to alleviate the hardship and distress suffered by those whose properties are affected by coal mining subsidence. No one can afford to be complacent about such an issue, least of all British Coal, many of whose employees live in areas prone to subsidence. The cost of meeting compensation claims is an average of £90 million per annum, approximately £1 per tonne of coal mined. Small though that may seem, it can be crucial in making a colliery viable. I share the view of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers that the charges should be set against a national fund and not against individual pits.
I was delighted to read in British Coal's annual report, that charges to collieries had dropped substantially—from £245 million in 1983·84 to —69 million this year, of which £58 million relates to earlier years. At the end of the financial year 1986–87, British Coal had —297 million set aside for latent liabilities arising from subsidence. But how do we ensure justice for claimants?
Paragraph 25 of the consultation paper is most welcome. It states:
Under this legislation a claimant is able to bring an action within a period of six years from when the damage actually occurred, or three years from when the claimant first had reasonable grounds for believing that damage had occurred.
However, for the reason that I outlined earlier, I cannot accept that if a claim is rejected it should be referred to the lands tribunal. I believe that the matter should fall to an independent adjudicator, or better still—as we are going to legislate—that an office of mining subsidence ombudsman should be set up. After all, we have ombudsmen for national Government, local government, banking and insurance. Why should the office not be used to deal with this serious problem?
The White Paper said that simple arbitration would be available as an alternative. Unfortunately, that is not happening, even when British Coal has accepted liability. All my submissions on behalf of constituents have been rejected. One constituent has submitted 20 separate claims for arbitration on differing aspects, and those also have been rejected. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can tell the House how many disputes have been referred to independent adjudication since the publication of the White Paper last year.
In their response to the Waddilove report, the Government stated that many of the recommendations had been accepted by British Coal and incorporated in its subsidence damage manual. While I have every faith that that is the case, I felt that it was in the interests of my constituents that I should have sight of the manual. Alas, it is available to hon. Members neither in the Library nor direct from British Coal. According to a parliamentary answer, the Department of Energy does not possess a copy either.
Why is British Coal so secretive, if it is playing fair? Secrecy breeds suspicion. Perhaps my hon. Friend can reassure me that he is satisfied with the manual's contents and that the recommendations are being implemented, but the evidence in Nottinghamshire so far is that that is not So.
From the many cases in my files, I have selected six to illustrate that nothing has changed in Nottinghamshire where British Coal is concerned. The first case concerns a constituent in Ravenshead who had some damage repaired. The repair work was unsatisfactory, and British Coal offered £2,300 in compensation. The householder rejected it, and went to an agent to submit the claim. At that point British Coal turned around and said, "We are sorry, but this is under a different heading. You are no longer eligible, as you are out of time." To date, nothing has been given to that constituent.
Case No. 2 was submitted by a constituent in 1986 on five houses, one of which was divided into flats. It was inspected in July 1987. By February 1988, no progress had yet been made. A meeting was arranged in March 1988, when the inspector said that The third case relates to a retired couple in Calvert on, who purchased their house from the local council. They put in a claim for subsidence damage and it was accepted. The repairs were not carried out to their satisfaction. The workmen withdrew because the couple objected, and the work was left unfinished until I put pressure on British Coal to complete the repairs. When I visited the couple, I found that the husband was suffering from arthritis and walking with a stick. His wife was recovering from a major operation. They were trying to redecorate their home on their own. I insisted that they should stop. That case was put right, but why should this old couple have had to suffer because British Coal adopted a high-handed attitude when they complained about poor workmanship?
My fourth example relates to the Beauvale estate in Hucknall. It is a beautiful estate, built on a slight incline in the shape of a horseshoe. A few years ago, every house was repaired because of mining subisdence. Subsequently, the gardens of those houses started to flood. Everybody believes that the damage to the drainage was due to British Coal's mining activities. However, the flooding started after the six-year rule, so British Coal rejected the claim and said that it was out of time. The local council is pursuing the matter with British Coal on behalf of the residents. As the houses suffered from mining subsidence, the people who live in those houses know full well that the drains must have suffered from subsidence, too. British Coal should put that right immediately.
There are other cases that I could mention, but because of the pressure on time I shall not refer to them in the Chamber but will draw them later to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister. British Coal's recent production records are impressive. During the last two and a half years, the turnround in the industry is nothing short of miraculous. The same expertise ought to be applied to settling mining subsidence damage claims, with a view to providing justice and fairness for the claimants.
the house divided into flats had not been inspected, because only one claim had been submitted and two were needed. The constituent had never been told that. Eventually the constituent said that he wished to be told the procedure for arbitration. The answer from the chairman of British Coal was, "We cannot give you an answer."
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) referred to the problem of publicising cases in certain areas. Such publicity might give the area a bad reputation and property values may fall. The alternative is to adopt a softly, softly approach, but that might lead to little being done. Many of us are therefore in a quandary about what to do.
I want to refer to the Hartington estate in Staveley. Some of the people who live on that estate are worried about publicity, but others would like it to be used as a weapon. The cat is out of the bag, though, because the Hartington estate has been the subject of local publicity, so I feel that it is possible to draw the attention of the House to the views of my constituents.
Mining subsidence occurred in 1984, and 108 representations have been made to me. My constituents tell me that in 1984 they were not told about the action that British Coal intended to take with its underground workings. The hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) said that the 1986 notification procedure now applies, so that difficulty has been overcome. I know that notification is now given in other areas of Staveley that lie within the Chesterfield constituency, but the people on the Hartington estate were not notified in 1984.
As for the repairs, residents feel that their rights and what they have to do when they vacate their property are not made clear to them. They make arrangements to move into another property where they expect to live for a matter of weeks, but they find that the weeks turn into months, or even into more than a year. When they vacate their property, they put their belongings into storage where they find that mildew affects it. Consequently, they feel that they must return as quickly as they can to their homes without checking whether the repairs have been completed satisfactorily.
Residents say that they experience considerable delays before agreement is reached about repairs or compensation, and they blame British Coal and their own agents. When they complain, British Coal blames the householders' agents for not taking appropriate action, but when they go to the agent, he blames British Coal for not implementing his recommendations. They feel that British Coal attempts to push those who cannot stand hassle—the pensioners and the infirm—into accepting compensation when it would be more appropriate for repairs to be carried out.
The compensation that is accepted does not cover the amount that has to be spent on putting the property into order. The compensation that is paid sometimes covers what has to be spent, but that is only because the compensation includes loss of value of the house, due to tilt. The additional compensation for tilt has to be used to put their property into reasonable order.
Reference has been made several times to the fact that, when a settlement has been reached, it is impossible for the residents to make a further claim. Repairs often take much longer than the residents expected when the settlement was accepted. Many of them have faced considerable difficulties because of the time that they had to spend out of their homes, either in caravans or in property that had been rented by British Coal. Residents say it is difficult to consult British Coal. They are not involved in the inspections that are made of their property. They believe that the repairs are mainly cosmetic and that they are done on the cheap, either by cowboy builders or by decent builders who are overstretched and underpaid.
Residents say that when bricks are missing, resulting in holes between one house and another, the holes are filled in. Bricks are not used to fill the holes, and a quick plastering job is done on top of the filling. If the residents complain and say that they want a proper inspection, they are told that that can be carried out only if they are prepared to pay for fresh replastering. The result is that many people then accept what has been done. There are also problems about the pointing of brickwork. It looks a mess from the outside because it is not straight; it zigzags.
Many problems arise after the repairs have been completed. Mr. Hunt, of 11 Hartington view, lists 57 defects in his property. I have seen many of them. I have also seen the defects in the repairs to his neighbours' property.
Subsidence is a traumatic experience for many people. They need to be shown care, concern and compassion, but that is not being offered to them. Instead, they are involved in considerable hassle with British Coal. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) said that there ought to be greater public awareness of the problem, that there should be an end to the time limit for repairs and that provision should be made for independent arbitration. When my hon. Friend's Bills come before the House again on 8 July, the Government should not automatically say "Object". They should consider placing some of the recommendations that have been made today on the statute book.
I was sorry to hear about the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie)—perhaps the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) will convey our good wishes to him.
I too congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on his success in the ballot. I should like to pay a special tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle) and to the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes). Like the hon. Member for Mansfield, they have spent a tremendous amount of time on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire has spent many years on it and he recounted the history of his involvement. I hope that the whole House is aware that there are several hon. Members who have battled with this problem for a long time. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who is muttering, wants me to congratulate him too, I am happy to do so.
The debate has shown that subsidence damage is of great concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have constituents who have been seriously affected by it. I can also congratulate myself, because I remember my time as a candidate for the Easington constituency in County Durham in the 1960s and early 1970s, when I saw the distress that subsidence causes people whose homes are damaged by it.
The hon. Member for Mansfield asked whether the Law Society and British Coal should agree on a new form of mining search. He stressed that there is no proper machinery for searching for subsidence. The Law Society and British coal have agreed on such a document, which will be made available.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) asked whether the Government decided on an alternative to rateable assessment for valuation purposes. We are considering other methods due to the proposal to introduce community charge.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) mentioned backdating legislation. It is not the general practice to make legislation retrospective, but we shall consider the appropriate date from which the measures that we shall introduce should become effective. We shall consider many of the arguments that have been advanced today.
The committee chaired by Mr. Lewis Waddilove has been referred to many times. That is quite right.
The Minister has dealt with some of the issues that have been raised, but he has missed out the change, after the strike, from 12 years to six, in the length of time for which British Coal remains liable. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that British Coal honours the arrangements that applied before 1983·84?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any assurances about history, but I can tell him what we plan to do with time limits. I recognise that this is a problem.
The Waddilove committee recognised from the start the importance of achieving a balance. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) talked about a balance between the needs of people who are affected by subsidence— they are often employees of the coal industry —and the interests of the industry. It has to be said that that industry is today struggling in a depressed market to stand on its own feet.
Mr. Waddilove felt that concern for loss, disturbance or damage caused by subsidence had to be weighed against the needs of an industry engaged in developing a major national energy resource. The costs to that industry of compensating for damage caused by subsidence cannot be underestimated. They have averaged more than £90 million a year recently, and the corporation has set aside £297 million against latent liabilities for subsidence damage.
I recognise, of course, that some hon. Members question whether subsidence costs should be taken into account in assessing the economic viability of individual collieries. We believe that it is a cost associated with the extraction of coal and should be treated as such. It is not, perhaps, generally recognised that the knowledge that subsidence costs are directly relevant to the future well-being of a colliery must sharpen the incentive for colliery management to avoid areas of high subsidence risk when drawing up their mine plans.
If given notice, I am happy to answer that question. All I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that, as a matter of principle, the Government support the view that such costs should transparently be borne by the pit concerned. We think that that will provide management with an incentive to ensure that subsidence is kept to a minimum.
The Waddilove committee published its report in 1984. It found that, although the basic framework of compensating procedures was sound, the subsidence repair and compensation system had certain serious shortcomings, some of which have been stressed today. It recognised that improvements had been made, but stressed that further advances were necessary, and so made a total of 65 recommendations.
The Government gave careful consideration to all 65 of those recommendations, taking into account the points of view of those most clearly concerned—the people who live in and operate businesses in mining areas, their local authorities and British Coal—and those of professional bodies such as lawyers, chartered surveyors and the representatives of the farmers and country landowners.
The Government's reply to Waddilove was published in the White Paper in October 1987. By the date of the White Paper's publication, a number of changes had already been introduced in line with the thinking in the Waddilove report.
The White Paper emphasised the need for a repairs-based compensation scheme. The hon. Member for Mansfield and others have accepted that idea. The White Paper also endorsed Waddilove's view that it is essential to strike a balance in the repair and compensation scheme between benefits to individuals and the environment, and the cost to British Coal and, currently, to the taxpayer.
Given the large number of subsidence claimants, it is not surprising that a disputed claim may arise from time to time, and it is therefore quite natural that disputed claims should have taken up a substantial part of this interesting debate.
The Waddilove committee was worried that the existing statutory appeals procedure was too little known and that some claimants might find. it daunting. The committee considered the lands tribunals to be the most appropriate bodies to consider appeals on subsidence, and the Government agree. The Government also agreed with the committee that where reference to local adjudication would be acceptable to both parties and was likely to be simpler, cheaper and faster for them, that approach should be encouraged, without there being any need to put the arrangement on a statutory basis.
Since the Waddilove report was published, the Department of Energy has published a detailed guidance leaflet to help claimants. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire referred to that leaflet, not entirely favourably. I shall certainly look carefully at his comments to see if there are ways in which the leaflet can be improved. If he has any further examples to raise, perhaps he would be kind enough to write to me. The leaflet is circulated widely to public libraries, citizens ad vice bureaux and others, and it is very important that a leaflet telling the people their rights is accurate. I should very much welcome any specific criticisms from hon. Members. We can certainly get it right, and I should be glad to receive any advice.
The White Paper also took a number of other points from the Waddilove report, which either helped to prevent subsidence damage, or widened the scope and the control of the compensation system. Some of those points have been referred to, but they included, among others, the inclusion of subsidence costs in the investment appraisal of any new mining proposals, and the modification of mining layouts to prevent surface damage as far as practicable; giving claimants the choice of using their own, rather than British Coal's, contractors to repair damage; a payment for loss of home amenity where damage has been severe and repair extensive, but where British Coal has been unable to offer a householder alternative accommodation; extending the scope of non-statutory compensation to householders and to owners of agricultural land; and an annual report to the Secretary of State for Energy on the administration of the compensation scheme, which would need to be laid before Parliament.
The Government have accepted the Waddilove recommendation that existing legislation— in the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957 and the Coal Industry Act 1975—should be codified, and that other of British Coal's discretionary provisions, at present set out in a code of practice, should be brought into statute. That is a direct answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire. The Government plan to bring forward legislation in that respect, although I have to say it will not be in the next Session.
The Government are satisfied that, since 1984, there have been marked improvements in the coal-mining subsidence compensation system. The hon. Member for Bolsover questioned my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, who raised that issue. During that period, the compensation system has already been improved. There has also been encouraging improvement in the handling of claims—whether or not hon. Members are prepared to accept that. Since 1984, the typical time taken to settle claims has been halved from four years to two, and that is an improvement. Since 1984, more than 62,000 claims have been settled. There has also been a decline in the number of new claims, and consequently a marked decline in unsettled claims.
Is the Minister aware that one of our arguments about settling claims has been that, during the past few years, British Coal has done its level best to hold up those claims for as long as it possibly can? There is no better example than that of Bolsover church when British Coal refused to negotiate. I had to bring the matter here to the House of Commons and ask the hon. Member who answers on behalf of the Church Commissioners to get on with the job. I challenged British Coal to a debate in Bolsover church, and no doubt we would have filled it. Only as a result of all those efforts did British Coal agree to start the process of settlement with the parochial church council.
No doubt the hon. Gentleman's intervention will be read by British Coal. It is strange for a member of his wing of his party to be making such wide-ranging allegations against a nationalised industry such as British Coal. It is interesting that nationalisation does not always work, at least in this context.
I do not deny that there will be such cases. One of the reasons I am interested in the issue is that much improvement is possible; I do not in any way deny that. However, one must be fair to both sides. The number of unsettled claims has fallen quite dramatically. In 1983·84, there were 52,000 outstanding claims; in 1986·87 there were 36,000. That is not good enough, but there is a trend of improvement on which we must improve considerably.
Of course I am aware that some people are disappointed that we have not accepted that householders should be offered compensation for residual loss in property values. We did consider this very hard, but we came to the conclusion that, given the wide variety of factors which can affect the values of property, it would be difficult to identify and properly to assess permanent loss in value, so we have concentrated on compensating for repairs and damage.
British Coal is now committed to achieving "a good standard of repair" in all cases, as opposed to ensuring that a property is "reasonably fit", as present legislation dictates. British Coal will also continue to compensate at the date of completion of repairs where there remains an identifiable material and physical change in the condition of a property following subsidence, and where it can be demonstrated that such change has materially reduced the value of the property.
In the White Paper, the Government also promise to pursue the question of time limits for making claims. A number of hon. Members raised that question, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling and for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim). We think that it would be going too far not to have any time limits at all. That matter was also raised by the hon. Member for Bolsover. To have no time limit would be as inequitable, in its way, to the body liable to compensation as an over-restrictive approach would be to the claimant. We believe that subsidence compensation should be treated consistently with limits on other claims for damage.
For England and Wales, the Limitation Act 1980, as amended by the Latent Damage Act 1986, sets out time limits in respect of latent damage which does not involve personal injuries. Under that legislation, a claimant can bring an action within six years from when the damage actually occurred or three years from when the claimant first had reasonable grounds for believing that damage had occurred. My hon. Friends the Members for Gedling and for Amber Valley asked which of those it would be. The answer is that they are alternatives; whichever is most favourable to the claimant applies
The Government propose to legislate to apply a similar approach to the limitation of subsidence claims. In these circumstances, the present right of appeal to either the British Coal Corporation or the Secretary of State against the rejection of claim as out of time under the 1957 Act would no longer be appropriate.
The proposals for Scotland would be a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, and that question might properly be addressed to him.
It would fall to the lands tribunal to determine whether a claim was time-barred. In fact, I can tell the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) that similar principles will be applied in Scotland.
It is written on the brief. I had forgotten about it, but it is there.
On 29 April, the Government issued a consultation paper on proposals for legislation. Copies were sent to over 100 interested parties and are freely available to anyone who applies to the Department of Energy. It is a matter of contention—the hon. Member for Mansfield raised the matter today or has raised it in writing—whether the period of consultation should be longer. We think that three months is adequate for consultation. However, in view of what the hon. Member for Mansfield said about further research being undertaken and the fact that we want to get the legislation right—that is why we have listened to what has been said today and at other times—the Government will always be interested to hear the views that anybody may wish to contribute towards the policy. If those views seem appropriate, they will be included. There is nothing sacrosanct about the time allowed, and we will keep our ears open until the legislation is drafted. We will be glad to receive views from hon. Members or anyone else.
The legislation will be introduced as soon as possible but, as I said earlier, it will not be possible to introduce a Bill in the next Session.
I should like to doubly clarify two important points, one of which the Minister has touched upon but the other he has not. Will my hon. Friend state categorically that the three-year rule applies not to when the damage occurs but to when the householder or owner could reasonably have noticed that damage resulting from the workings was affecting their property? What will be the position of people whose properties have had an earlier claim accepted but who then have subsequent claims arising out of further damage?
On the first point, the answer is uncategorically yes. On the second point, it would be difficult for the same damage to be the subject of new compensation. If it were new damage, it would be much easier. The matter has been raised several times in the debate, and I shall see whether I can do anything further.
The Government will bear in mind the concerns that have been expressed on both sides of the House. We will be bringing forward legislation. We are not complacent about subsidence and are well aware of the hardship and distress it can cause. I believe that the proposals set out in the White Paper, which have been developed in the consultation paper, constitute a balanced and acceptable standard of compensation for coal mining subsidence. The significance of the problem has certainly been recognised today.
In answer to mumbles I have heard from Opposition Front-Bench Members as to speed of action and so on, I should say that British Coal is already putting many of the Waddilove recommendations into practice. The legislation will largely be a question of consolidating those changes and putting them into statute.
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that I have tried to address myself to all the major issues. I cannot possibly answer every point, particularly constituency points, but I would be happy to do so in writing.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) for giving the House an opportunity to debate this subject and I am more than grateful to him for allowing me to have the few remaining minutes that should have been his.
The Waddilove report was a response to the Flowers report and if we are not to have a Bill before the next Session, 10 years will have passed without a response from the Government to this important subject.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) referred to paragraphs 158 to 162 of the Select Committee report. In the short time I have available I do not have an opportunity to go into detail but the Committee said:
Any system of compensation which is developed from the Waddilove Report should be so framed as to apply equally to British Coal and any present or future competitors.
I hope that when the Bill is produced it will not refer only to the responsibilities of British Coal. If British Coal is to be privatised, one hopes that the legislation will be final and binding on the coal industry in the private sector.
Along with others I had the privilege of giving written and oral evidence to the Waddilove committee. However, at that time the problem to which I wish to refer had not reared its head. The Townville estate in Castleford in my constituency is an estate of 400 dwellings where 70 ex-miners purchased their homes from British Coal. At the time, there was no mention by the board of any subsidence. Since that time, those unfortunate owners have been caught by the Housing Defects Act 1984.
The Minister will know that the properties must be repaired to the required standard authorised by the Secretary of State or they must be repurchased by the local authority, whichever involves the lowest cost. The repair of the properties would amount to about £18,000 or £20,000 each, more than the market value. Therefore, it was left to the local authority to repurchase the homes. The local authority valuer valued 60 or so houses at about £12,000 but four of the owners, ex-miners, were told that because their homes had suffered subsidence, £4,000 would be knocked off the valuation.
After corresponding with British Coal, I have been told that it will admit liability but will pay only 50 per cent. of the difference. Therefore, 66 of my constituents will receive about £12,000 for their homes but, because British Coal has conceded that four of them have been damaged by subsidence, they will receive less money. Surely, if there is any justice, British Coal should meet the full difference. That matter is not mentioned in the Waddilove report or the consultative document but I hope that the Minister will take it on board because it is serious.
The owners have obtained legal advice and have been referred to the six-year rule. They have been told that their claims are out of time. I hope that cases of this type will be included when the Minister produces his Bill.
As I sat in Mansfield and listened to the people of the area, I discovered that their main problem is the lack of information. The Government's response to Waddilove excludes public participation. They have talked about discussions with local authorities and other bodies but they have suggested that there should be no public participation. I do not know what they mean by that. As has been said, many of those people have had no experience of dealing with claims of this nature and are having to obtain advice. However, they do not seek advice unless it is brought to their doorsteps. Many people have lost out purely because of lack of advice. I hope that the Minister will deal with those matters.
I have enjoyed today's debate because, for the first time since I have been an hon. Member, the House seems to be in complete harmony. We agree that there must be a better compensation system for mining subsidence.
I remember that in my former constituency of Huddersfield, West an elderly couple came home from holiday and tried to open the front door but it would not open. When they got in they found cracks in the hall and on the stairway, that the inner doors would not open and that the ground floor had sunk, but they could not explain why. The Victorian mine workings had not been properly delineated on the maps—