I shall be extremely brief and I shall try to confine my remarks to within two or three minutes. I declare an interest, as a member of the Country Landowners Association, that, to the best of my knowledge, none of the land in which I have an interest is coal-bearing.
Obviously, I support the principle of privatisation, but if anyone is in any doubt at all about the sheer devastation of the countryside that opencast mining can cause, he should look at the speech made in the other place by Viscount Ridley, who spelled the position out very clearly. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) also touched on that point.
As for coal supply, when there is an emergency such as a war, it is obvious that we must have an Act like the Defence of the Realm (Acquisition of Land) Act 1918, and that of 1920. Unfortunately, those measures were incorporated into the Opencast Coal Act 1958. As the Minister has said, compulsory powers have rarely been used by either the Coal Board or British Coal. I am therefore extremely surprised to see them being made available to the private sector. While huge devastation to the countryside might be acceptable at a time of national crisis or when there is a critical coal shortage, it is certainly not acceptable when there is a world surplus in coal. Furthermore, the production of coal does not need special compulsory powers any more than the production of any other mineral.
The Minister in another place talked about the last resort and negotiations. When negotiations are taking place between a private operator and a landlord or a farmer, how can those negotiations be free and fair when, as Viscount Ridley pointed out, there is the sword of Damocles—the compulsory rights order—hanging over the landlord? Can the Minister comment on that?
I am concerned about the five-year period for the operation of the compulsory rights order. Surely, when a time scale is put on such an operation, there is frenetic activity during the last few months or weeks of the operation. The danger is that some of the larger private mining operators, such as Budge and Hanson, will want to ensure that they get the areas of potential opencast mining sorted out. There may well be intense negotiations, which would not be free and fair.
We are talking about a fundamental principle. Whereas it might make sense for compulsory powers to be vested in the state vis-a-vis a private operator, surely it does not make sense that those compulsory powers be carried over to a private operator. An important principle is at stake. The Lords amendments recognised—reluctantly—that compulsory rights orders could continue, but they wanted to tilt the balance more in favour of landowners. That is why I am sympathetic to them, and that is why I would like the Minister to answer those specific points.