Clause 103 - Additional powers of the Coal Authority: England and Wales

Energy Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 21st June 2011.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

I rise to give the Minister a proper opportunity to introduce the clause. I welcome it, because it recognises the expertise that has resided in the Coal Authority over many years in respect of subsidence,  and the potential for that expertise to be applied more widely than purely in respect of coal mining. How does the hon. Gentleman see the new powers being utilised by the Coal Authority? Can he give us an assurance that its core functions in coal subsidence will not be affected by extending its remit beyond that? How has he dealt with the danger or the perils of the Coal Authority, with its special status and renowned expertise, driving out competition unfairly when it wants to competes in a wider market for its services? The same questions stand for clause 104 in respect of Scotland. Rather than repeat my comments, perhaps both I and the Minister can deal with both clauses in one go.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

The purpose of the clause is to extend the powers of the Coal Authority in England and Wales to allow it to make use of and charge for its expertise in remediating coal-related environmental and safety liabilities in non-coal-related contexts. The extension will not take precedence over the authority’s existing statutory duties, and I hope that that has answered the hon. Gentleman’s question about coal subsidence. It will allow the Coal Authority to assist other public bodies and private landowners in dealing with mine-water treatment, subsidence or surface-hazard remediation outside the coal-mining sphere.

The change will not lead to an additional call on the public purse, as the authority will be able to charge for the additional non-coal work. Clause 104 mirrors the clause to extend the powers to Scotland. The Coal Authority’s status has been reviewed as part of the public bodies review and the internal Department of Energy and Climate Change delivery review. Its inclusion in the Public Bodies Bill will allow the Government to undertake any changes in the future, should the outcomes of the DECC review or any future circumstances require us to do so. The change is small and sensible.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

This is not an attempt to part-privatise and substitute private work within the Coal Authority to receive finance so that in the near future the Government can reduce the money that they pay the Coal Authority to act on their behalf, is it?

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

I hope that I can give the hon. Gentleman complete assurance. There is tremendous expertise within the Coal Authority. It is quite restrained in what it can do at the moment, and can use such expertise in other areas for different mining and related activities. That should properly be remunerated so it will charge for such services, but we recognise that it has untapped skills at the moment, of which it should be allowed to make use. The clause is not an attempt to privatise.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

What idea does the Minister have of the size of the sector competing within the market beyond the pure coal-mining area of subsidence and the expertise within the UK? In light of his words, how can we guard against the Coal Authority driving out smaller competitors who do not have its prestigious name or weight of expertise? We do not want this well-intentioned and apposite clause driving out existing competition that is struggling to compete with the huge weight of the Coal Authority.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

We do not expect the work or the income to be substantial; it will be a niche area, but it is nevertheless one where the authority’s skills are relevant, and in which it should be allowed to develop. An important point is that we have to find the right balance between allowing that expertise—it is not being used as broadly as it could be—to be brought to bear and to help in other areas, and making sure that where good private sector operators can provide such services they are not squeezed out of the process. At the moment, this is a permissive change to legislation, to allow the Coal Authority to extend its work. As Ministers who strongly believe in the role of competition and the private sector, we will watch very carefully to ensure that the authority’s powers are not abused.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 103 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 104 ordered to stand part of the Bill.