For the past three months in this place I have been either standing or sitting looking at the same Minister who is sitting opposite me tonight. I think that he knows something about the problem that I have brought to the House on behalf of my constituents. The Minister himself assures me that he knows something about pit mining. In fact, I understand that 10 or 11 years ago he made a visit to Easington—and went underground, I believe. He found out something about the mining industry.
Like some of us who have worked in the pit for many years—35 years in my case—the Minister probably knows that when the coal is taken out the land falls all the way from the top, and that if there are properties on the top they will be damaged. That is the problem that I want to discuss with the Minister tonight. Many of those properties—hundreds upon hundreds in my constituency alone, never mind the other mining areas—have suffered severe damage.
What has been happening? The National Coal Board, which now calls itself British Coal, has been telling many people in my constituency and others that they are to receive nothing for compensation or repairs. That is a shocking state of affairs. But the Minister sits there and allows it to go on and on, and when we raise it with him he does nothing about it.
What did the Government do? They brought in Ian MacGregor as chairman of the National Coal Board. And what was he told? He was told that the industry must break even and then go into profit. So he started to have a look at the books, and what did he find? He found substantial subsidence problems, meaning that a fair amount of money had to be found for compensation and repairs. What did he find in Nottinghamshire? He found that people there were allowed to claim for compensation or repairs 12 years after mining had ceased underneath any property.
But I hope that he is listening. He used not to listen in Committee. We got nothing from him on the Electricity Bill, but I hope that we will get something tonight, because we are in desperate need. Let me tell the Minister that when we kick his lot out next time my Government will do something for these people.
MacGregor found that that 12-year period was six years in statute, so he shortened it to six years to save money because of the pressure from the Government for the industry to break even and then make a profit. When he shortened it to six years, he left out people who had a genuine claim for damage to their properties.
The Government encourage people to own their own properties, but people get nothing when their properties are damaged by the mining industry. The Minister is not prepared to tell British Coal what it should do for people with that problem living in my constituency and other constituencies.
The present general secretary of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers in Nottinghamshire has been saying that the cost of compensation and repairs is closing pits. He can afford to say that because he has had his property repaired and it now looks beautiful. He can come off it. He has had his share, but he is not bothered about anyone else. I am speaking on behalf of my constituents, so I am looking forward to hearing something from the Minister tonight. He knows about the Waddilove report. When that report was published, the Secretary of State sat on it for a year and did not bring it to the House, for the simple reason that it said that complainants had a genuine case and were not receiving fair treatment. The Government then issued a White Paper and promised to produce a Bill. We are still waiting for that Bill. We are waiting to see what the Government propose to do about the problem.
Ashfield and Mansfield district councils realised that mining subsidence had caused serious problems in the beautiful county of Nottinghamshire, and, in the same way as the Government have sent out leaflets about the poll tax, put a leaflet through every door in Ashfield and Mansfield to find out the exact extent of the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) is in his place and hopes to take part in the debate. In Mansfield, 12,000 people responded to the leaflet from the district councils to say that they had problems with mining subsidence and that British Coal was doing nothing about it.
In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) 2,000 properties had been damaged by mining subsidence. In Chesterfield, a little further down the road in Derbyshire, a further 2,000 properties had been damaged. The numbers are increasing and we want something to be done about the serious problem that those people face.
The hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) is not here. His lather used to be a Minister at the Department of Transport and 3,000 properties in his constituency were damaged by mining subsidence. The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) usually sits on the Conservative Back Benches sniping at the Derbyshire county council, yet 2,700 properties in his constituency have been damaged by mining subsidence. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) has 1,100 such properties in his constituency. It is surprising that none of those Conservative Members have mentioned the subject in the House.
My colleagues and I have been constantly badgering the Minister and the Secretary of State for Energy, when he is in the country, so we are really looking for some action. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Sir W. Clark) has stayed to listen to the debate. He does not often remain here into the early hours of the morning as you and I do, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr Dixon), the Opposition Deputy Chief Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), the Opposition Chief Whip, are often here. The Doorkeepers and Hansard are always here. They are a good staff and they look after us. Having made that point, I turn to my constituency of Ashfield.
There are 8,250 properties affected in my constituency and we are constantly told that there is no hope of getting anything done. We are told that we are out of time. If British Coal offers any compensation, the money is spent on the property, but by the time the money is spent, only half the work has been done. The compensation is nowhere enough. It is cut here, cut there and cut everywhere and that is a result of the Government's policy towards coal mining.
The Government must live up to their responsibilities. They are responsible for the coal mining industry, which is a public industry. There is plenty of it in my constituency and other mining areas. We have this massive problem to deal with and there is no doubt that it is important. I get letters and representations at my surgeries and I am sick to death of people coming to see me and my having to tell them that the Minister is not prepared to do anything about it. I hope that he will help us tonight.
You often come to Nottinghamshire, Mr. Speaker, and you have told me about the wonderful visits you have made. Supposing that when you retire—and I hope that that is a long way off—you decide to move away from the metropolis to that beautiful county up there and buy a property. You would have to be very careful when you looked over the property to be sure that it was not affected by mining subsidence. You could be taken for a ride unless you knew that. I hope that in your retirement, Mr. Speaker, you do come that way so that we see each other regularly as we do here.
The problem is serious. I hope that we will get something done about it and I beg the Minister to come over to my constituents. They do not all vote for me, because 18,000 voted Conservative at the last election. The Minister must consider that seriously. When constituents come to me and tell me whether they voted Labour or Conservative, I have to tell them that it makes no difference. Once a Member of Parliament is elected, if a constituent has a problem, he does his utmost to deal with it, which is what I am doing tonight. People of all political colours in my constituency have this problem. I am looking for some help from the Minister tonight.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) on his continued sterling efforts on behalf of his constituents; I know that he serves them well in this Chamber.
I want to add a couple of points. On the latest surveys, in the north Nottinghamshire area, the problem is considerably worse than my hon. Friend has described. In the Mansfield and Ashfield area alone, there are at least 25,000 properties damaged through coal mining subsidence. If one considers the other areas covered by the survey, which was carried out by Trent polytechnic in Nottingham, one can see that there are at least 35,000 damaged properties.
We want some positive action and direction from the Minister. The chief executives from a consortium of local authorities are hoping to come to London in late June to present to the Minister the register of damaged properties found in the survey and I know that the Minister has said that he would be prepared to meet them. In November, the same group is holding a seminar in the north Nottinghamshire area, at a venue yet to be decided. All the authorities will be represented, with the relevant Members of Parliament and, we hope, British Coal, to try to map out some solution to this enormous problem.
There are 25,000 damaged homes in two small district council areas and in my area, of 18,000 returns to a questionnaire put through doors, over 14,000 showed damaged properties. Schools and hospitals have had to close in my constituency and there are thousands of damaged homes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield pointed out, not all the people affected voted Labour at the last general election. A substantial proportion of the electorate in my constituency voted Conservative. With a majority of 56, I hold one of the smallest majorities in the House. More than 19,000 people voted Conservative in my constituency and many of them live in damaged properties.
I shall be grateful if the Minister will answer some of my questions.
My constituency does not have the same mining subsidence problems as those described by my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). There have been a number of serious problems in the past, however, in the Hartington area in Staveley. Massive problems have arisen and people have felt that they are being bounced back and forth between agents and the board and have been unable to solve their compensation problems.
We need legislation to deal with problems that arise in future. The Staveley area, for example, is likely to have massive subsidence problems. When will the Government introduce legislation based on the Waddilove report, or reflecting the two Bills introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield? Even if primary legislation is not forthcoming, some measures could be introduced. For instance, if you, Mr. Speaker, decided to move to Nottinghamshire and buy a property, would plans of advanced working be available to his surveyors and others? We need local arbitration for disputes, and planning permission should be required for new areas. Moreover, people ought to be able to use their own contractors rather than always having to act through the agents. It seems to me that those aims could be achieved under existing legislation, perhaps by the introduction of statutory instruments.
The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) got one thing wrong in his fluent speech. It was not 11 but 23 years ago, in 1966, that I had the honour of fighting Emmanuel Shinwell in the constituency of Easington. That was the first occasion on which I had direct knowledge of the undoubtedly distressing problem of subsidence.
The hon. Gentleman got another, much more important, thing wrong when he completely misinformed the House about the assiduous efforts of my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) on behalf of their constituents. I know about that, because I am on the receiving end of their complaints.
Nevertheless, my hon. Friends are assiduous in their efforts. It is the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate and he has quite properly brought the matter before the House but it is quite wrong of him to cast aspersions on my hon. Friends, who fight hard for their constituents on this matter.
Let me say a word to the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) before I address myself to the speech of the hon. Member for Ashfield. I shall seriously consider meeting the delegation to which he referred, particularly if it is accompanied by hon. Members on both sides of the House. He also asked me about the November meeting. I look forward to receiving the formal invitation and, while I cannot commit myself fully so far in advance, I shall certainly attend if I can.
The hon. Member for Ashfield has quite properly raised the question of coal mining subsidence. I understand his concern and have every sympathy with those who have experienced damage to their homes from subsidence.
I shall come to what it means in a moment, but I think that it is worth starting with an expression of sympathy. That is totally fair.
I do not think that the hon. Member for Ashfield will deny that subsidence is an inevitable consequence of modern deep mining techniques. The very real problems associated with it will therefore remain as long as there is a coal industry, which—contrary to what Opposition Members sometimes say—I predict will be for a very long time indeed. The question which the hon. Member for Ashfield properly addressed is how to ensure that those affected by subsidence get a fair deal. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the issue was addressed in some detail by the Waddilove committee. The committee's report recognised that a balance has to be struck between the interests of the people living in a coal mining area and the needs of an economic coal industry to which his hon. Friends often refer.
Although Waddilove concluded that the system for compensation and repair had its shortcomings, it did not call for radical revision or overhaul. However, it identified a number of areas where improvements could be made, and the process of implementation has already begun. As I stated in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock) on 12 January this year, British Coal has already implemented over half the Waddilove committee's 65 recommendations.
A number of important changes are therefore already in place. For example, British Coal has improved its public notification procedures and now publishes in local newspapers mining locations over the previous and next 12 months. It is committed to a good standard of repair in all cases of subsidence, even though the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957 only requires it to make the property "reasonably fit" for use. Claimants are also able to use their own contractors for the repair of subsidence damage.
The Waddilove report recommended that British Coal should provide the Secretary of State for Energy with an annual report on the administration of the subsidence compensation and repair system in the previous year. The first such report was placed in the House of Commons Library towards the end of last year. It shows that both the number of new claims and the total numbers of claims outstanding are on the way down. In 1983–84 there were 52,000 claims outstanding; in 1986–87 the figure was 36,000, and the report shows that by last year it had fallen to 31,000.
I fully concede that that is still more than one would wish to see, but British Coal is making progress and the downward trend is clear. In part this may have been achieved by a general shift of mining away from built-up areas. It is also due to British Coal taking greater account of subsidence damage in the mine planning process and putting additional resources into the administration of claims. It is inevitable, however, that a system which deals with around 12,000 new claims a year will produce some cases where people are dissatisfied. I am always concerned, as the hon. Gentleman is, to hear of these.
Nor must the costs of subsidence damage be forgotten. We have to see the matter in perspective. Last year alone, compensation and repairs arising from subsidence damage cost British Coal £49 million; that is what it paid out. British Coal now includes subsidence in the costing of all proposed underground workings. In extreme cases, pits can be closed if the subsidence costs associated with extracting the coal are unacceptably high.
Despite the improvements, the present system has its shortcomings and we accept that more remains to be done. In our response to Waddilove, we said that we would consider legislation in a number of areas. Last April, we issued a consultation document setting out our proposals. These will result in significant improvements to the present system.
For example, we propose increasing the time limits for making a claim. This will mean that a claimant will be able to submit a claim either six years from the occurrence of the damage or three years from when the damage first becomes apparent, subject to an absolute limit of 15 years. An important point is that, during that period, the onus is on British Coal to prove that damage was not caused by subsidence. That would ensure that claimants will not lose their right to make a claim merely because the damage has taken some time to become apparent.
The Government share the Waddilove report's view —and the views expressed by the hon. Member for Ashfield—that the public interest is best met by a system for dealing with subsidence damage which puts the emphasis on repairs rather than on compensation. We therefore propose introducing for the first time a provision whereby the primary duty of British Coal will be to repair damage. We also propose that, in future, property and land damaged by subsidence should be restored to is pre-damaged state as far as reasonably practicable.
We further intend to extend British Coal's liability for certain expenses and damage. For example, British Coal's code of practice will be brought into statute. That will mean that compensation for damage to chattels, house or farm loss, depreciation of crops, tilt and other structural distortion will all now have a firm statutory basis for the first time. We will also extend British Coal's liability by putting certain incidental expenses incurred by claimants on a statutory footing. That could include such matters as cost of removal and storage of furniture, cleaning costs, transport costs and loss of earnings.
Residual loss of property value is likely to occur only in a small minority of cases. Our proposed new standard of repair should reduce the number still further. British Coal will continue to compensate where there remains an indentifiable material and physical change in the condition of a property following subsidence damage and repair—for example, tilt and other structural distortion—and where it can be demonstrated that the change has materially reduced the value of the property. Those provisions are presently included in the code of practice which we have proposed should be incorporated into statute. However, given the variety of factors that can affect the values of property, it would be difficult to identify and to assess properly permanent loss in value.
Waddilove concluded that the Lands Tribunal was he most appropriate body to consider appeals on mining subsidence damage, and the Government agree with that conclusion. In responding to all claims, British Coal informs claimants of the possibility of an appeal to the Lands Tribunal or independent adjudication. British Coal will make every effort to reach an amicable agreement but, if disputes arise, independent adjudication offers a potentially cheaper and simpler solution to straightforward disputes than references to the Lands Tribunal.
I understand the situation, because I have read the literature and I have heard the hon. Gentleman's statements previously. However, has the hon. Gentleman made any sort of bid to the Treasury or the Cabinet, for the next financial year, so that we can get on with some of the proposed legislation?
I shall have something to say about legislation in a moment.
British Coal will recommend references to the Lands Tribunal or independent adjudication in certain cases—for example, in disputes over valuation of property or the choice of a method of repair. However, in cases requiring significant legal input or involving more than one issue, direct reference to the Lands Tribunal is likely to be more appropriate.
We have received over 50 responses to the proposals included in the consultation paper. There have, of course, been a number of criticisms and further suggestions but, broadly speaking, our proposals have been well received.
We have carefully considered the points now raised and our proposals are now virtually finalised. In direct answer to the hon. Member for Mansfield, I can tell him that we will legislate on them when parliamentary time allows us to do so. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for Ashfield, who properly raised the issue before the House, will feel confident that the matter is being addressed with the utmost seriousness by the Government, with legislation firmly in mind.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.