First Day

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 6:58 pm on 7th November 1990.

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Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford 6:58 pm, 7th November 1990

The Gulf crisis was really the subject of earlier speeches. Hussein has occupied Kuwait by force, with the intention of seizing control of other Arab states and the oil wells that go with them.

I must admit to disappointment at what has been omitted from the Gracious Speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) intervened during the Prime Minister's speech, in his usual manner, to express concern about the Bill on mining subsidence, which, while not the subject of any promise, was expected to be included in the new Session's business. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will call me to order if I start to refer to a Bill that is not part of the Gracious Speech, but perhaps I may continue, given that the Gracious Speech concludes with the words, Other measures will be laid before you. Since 1957, British Coal operated a policy on mining subsidence compensation that existed until 1975, when it was superseded by the Coal Industry Act 1975. That legislation placed an obligation on British Coal to restore houses damaged by subsidence to their former state as soon as possible. In special cases, national compensation was payable where the cost of the repairs was in excess of the value of the property.

For many years, that scheme did not operate satisfactorily, because different British Coal areas interpreted it in different ways and people in certain areas allegedly received better treatment than others. The scheme's shortcomings were highlighted in evidence given to the Select Committee on Energy in 1986 by the Coal Board's chairman, Sir Ian MacGregor, when it was shown that the cost of the scheme to British Coal was £250 million, and that £200 million of that had gone in compensation payments in Nottingham—and only £50 million for the rest of the country. I know that Nottingham suffered from severe damage, but criminal charges were made against some individuals, and I understand that some people went to prison.

The Government had already decided to set up an inquiry—eventually called the Waddilove inquiry—prior to the problem in Nottinghamshire. In 1983, the Waddilove committee reported and made 65 recommendations, many of which were welcome to people in mining communities whose properties had been damaged. In 1987–88, the Energy Select Committee inquired further into the subject of subsidence and found that the Government were still sitting on the Waddilove report and had failed to take any action on it. The Committee decided that it would make a further investigation into mining subsidence problems caused by British Coal.

The Committee set about its inquiry by taking evidence from experts from various parts of our coalfields, from people whose property had suffered from subsidence, and from British Coal. The Committee reported on 17 July this year, and made 21 recommendations.

The Government's response to some of the Committee's recommendations has been encouraging. The then Minister acknowledged the problems and promised that a Bill would be introduced at the earliest opportunity. He did not specify when, but people in mining communities expected it to be this year. Unfortunately, that has not happened.

I hope that the Government will introduce legislation on subsidence as part of the other measures that are to be brought forward. I had some encouragement from one of the Prime Minister's answers this afternoon. If that is the case, I ask the Government to take the recommendations of the Select Committee into consideration. That Committee had the privilege of listening to the experts. While I do not expect any Government to legislate on everything that a Select Committee finds, much of the advice and the recommendations by such Committees is wise. I feel sure that, if the Government had taken the slightest bit of notice of the Select Committee's report on the privatisation of electricity, they would not have got themselves into the mess that they got into in the early days. The Committee advised the Government to put the reins on and to go steady. If they had done so, they would have produced more satisfactory legislation.

The Committee did not consider one important aspect of subsidence—the blight which affects the damaged areas. I accept that this is a difficult problem. For example, two or three homes in an area can be badly damaged while neighbouring houses are untouched, but owners of the neighbouring properties will be unable to sell their homes because they are in a blighted area.

An example has come to light in recent weeks in a litte village called Darrington in my constituency. Homes are expensive there, and most of them belong to people in the professional classes, who now find themselves in difficulties because their expensive homes have been damaged. British Coal has dealt with their claims. However, a gentleman came to se me the other day and said that bungalows on either side of his property had been marketed at £125,000—that is a high price for my constituency—but had been damaged to such an extent that British Coal had bought them. His bungalow lies in between them. He has been made redundant from the mining industry and has found a job in Lancashire, but because his bungalow is situated between those properties and is in an area which is subject to subsidence, he cannot sell it. That is a major problem. I hope that, if and when the Government introduce a Bill to deal with subsidence, they will consider that matter.

In some cases, houses have been repaired but have been left with a tilt. British Coal has no obligation to pay for that. British Coal has offered two of my constituents, Mr. Simpson and Mr. Wilcox, £2,500, which it later increased to £3,500 to pay for the tilt. That would appear to be fair, until one considers that houses in the area are valued at between £33,000 and £35,000. British Coal has had to buy some of the houses in the area because of the tilt. There is no obligation upon it to do so, but it has taken that decision in the case of certain houses.

British Coal is advertising for sale three of the houses which have suffered subsidence. In the advertisement, it states that, owing to mining subsidence, it is selling the properties for £11,500, £12,000 and £10,000—houses which had a market value of £33,000 before they were damaged. However, British Coal is only offering my constituents £3,500 in compensation, despite the fact that its advertisements acknowledge that it will only be able to get £10,000 or £11,000 for them. That is unjust. It is not fair that an owner-occupier can only get £11,000 or £12,000 for his house but is offered only £3,500 in compensation by British Coal. That is not on.

I hope that the Government will seriously consider introducing a Bill which will give British Coal the statutory obligation to rectify the matter. It does not seem as if they will, but politics is a funny old game. If a Tory Government return after the next election, British Coal will be privatised. If that happens, private owners will have no obligation—according to my legal advice—to compensate under present legislation in the same way that British Coal has an obligation to do.

This is a serious matter. I hope that the Government will note the points that I have made and introduce a Bill as soon as is humanly possible that incorporates them.