§ Mr. Dobson
I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 27, at end insert—'(c) in paragraph (c) after the word "tonnes" there shall be inserted "except that no operation shall proceed where the land was included in Acts of Enclosure which were enacted prior to 1840 and is currently devoted to agriculture, forestry or recreational purposes.".'.
§ Mr. Speaker
With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 5, in page 2, line 27, at end insert—'(c) in paragraph (c) after "tonnes", there shall be inserted "and when undertakings have been made by the operators for the restoration of the land affected by the working of coal or by operations incidental to such working.".'.No. 1, in page 2, line 27, at end insert—'(1A) After subsection (2) of that section there shall be inserted—(2AA) Applicants for a licence under subsection 2(c) above shall undertake to deposit a bond, with the relevant local authority, sufficient to cover the costs of the restoration of land affected by operations under that licence as estimated by that local authority.".'.
§ Mr. Dobson
This group of amendments is intended to ensure that the activities of private opencast operators are brought up to the standards of the opencast operations of British Coal. That does not mean that we think that British Coal's opencast operations are necessarily as good as they should be.
Amendment No. 4 is a shrewd amendment, which was originally tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). It relates to the enclosure Acts, many of which specified that when common land was enclosed hedgerows should be established and then maintained in perpetuity. My hon. Friend will explain at greater length that, although that legislation is still in force, regrettably—even under the present law-and-order Government—it is not enforced. Amendment No. 4 seeks to offer protection wherever there is a threat of opencasting.
I am reminded of a piece of doggerel that was popular at about the time of the Enclosure Acts, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) will recall, as may other right hon. and hon. Members:The fault is great in man or woman Who steals a goose from off a common. But what can plead the man's excuse Who steals the common from the goose?Common land is now enclosed only because hedges were erected around it—and if they are required to be removed, eventually they should be replaced.
We argue that private operators of opencast sites should not be allowed to expand the scale of their operations from 25,000 tonnes to 250,000 tonnes, but if the Government persist in increasing the maximum take tenfold, there should be a substantial improvement also in the protection given to local communities, to match the operators' degree of exploitation.
There is no doubt that further protection is needed. Over the years, many reports have illustrated the problems created by licensed opencast sites. One of the most thorough—albeit that it is now somewhat old, having been 208 published in 1984—was that produced by the minerals and reclamation group of the County Planning Officers Society. It describes problems that confronted its members and local communities in no fewer than six counties. The report runs to 17 pages, and its contents should be noted.
One of the problems that the report reveals is that operators do not observe conditions of operation, nor do they fulfil their obligations to restore an opencast site when their work is finished. Amendments Nos. 1 and 5 require operators to enter into an agreement to meet certain conditions. Also, after an operator has sought and obtained planning consent, the planning authority will secure a bond to cover the cost of the required restoration work. If the operator does not honour its obligations, the county council will have the funds to undertake the necessary work in default, at the operator's expense. That is only right and proper.
The planning officers' report lists numerous examples of conditions not being fulfilled. In one case, a condition restricting the height of the overburden mound was disregarded. The mound was too high and caused a nuisance to local people. A condition restricting the noise emanating from the site was also disregarded, causing trouble to local people.
The report cites an example of the shady behaviour of which operators are capable. At another site, an operatorwas unable to comply with agreed working scheme because of the cost of replacing overburden in worked out area.The planning authority was virtually blackmailed into granting additional planning consent for another area of opencasting, so that the operator could finance the restoration work required at the first site. That approach is typical.
The report describes flooding in a village adjacent to an opencast site in another county because of inadequate drainage. At the same site,non-compliance with approved time period and phased working scheme caused greater disruption in the area than necessary, and lasted longer than necessary.On a different site in the same county, a condition to protect the stability of the highway and road safety by providing a 40 ft safeguarding strip alongside the highway boundary was disregarded. Instead, extraction took place right up to the highway boundary, which undermined the highway itself.
At another site, consent was given for only 18 months' working. The report observes:Slow rate of working because contractors kept 'diverting' machinery to sites which they considered more urgent"—and which presumably paid better. On that 52-acre site, the operator won about 40,000 tonnes of coal over seven years—but the neighbouring community had to pay a big price for that.
As to the original amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for the Member for Wentworth, the report gives another example of an operator being provided with a detailed working plan and conditions relating to the safeguarding of hedges—but removing the hedges and then applying for retrospective planning consent to do so. Meanwhile, severe damage was caused to the landscape.
My final example relates to a site that was inadequately restored because the operator went bust. If the operator had been required to lodge a bond with the county council, money would have been available to complete the restoration. As it was, the council was left to decide 209 whether to use the money of its ratepayers—soon, poll tax payers—to compensate for the fiddles perpetrated by the private operator.
I notified the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) of my intention to mention a site in his constituency, which he may recognise from the photographs that I have. I refer to the Rope walk north site worked by United Mining Ltd. which won 18,265 tonnes between June and August 1987. The photograph was taken in December 1989 and shows that the promised restoration work had still not been undertaken. It may be that it was completed over Christmas and in the new year, but that seems unlikely. That is another example of things going wrong in the east midlands because an operator failed to comply with its original undertaking or with the planning authority's conditions.
Other examples are to be found in the report, "Opencast—casting a shadow", published in 1989 by the Durham Area Miners Support Group. The chapter on private opencasting is entitled, "Licence to make a killing?". That is certainly what some operators have been doing. In Northumberland, R and A Young was working both the Jacks Law extension and Wandylaw moor sites under two licences so that that company could keep within the tonnage limit.
§ 7 pm
§ Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)
The company that my hon. Friend mentioned is considering submitting an application for a further site in my constituency. The life of that site will probably he 30 years. The initial application for a site at Gassop near Bowburn in Durham is for opencasting for three years and drift mining for 26 years. The opencast mine will probably be expected to last even longer than that. It is appalling to have such an application in an area of landscape beauty and scientific interest. How will the amendment prevent companies such as R and A Young from exploiting the countryside in my constituency and making life miserable for many people? If its application were to be accepted, life around Bowburn would he unbearable for 30 years.
§ Mr. Dobson
I understand perfectly what my hon. Friend is saying. As was explained in Committee, opencast sites are a great menace, not only on environmental grounds but because they are a threat to health with the dust that blows from them. There is little evidence that private contractors are willing to comply with any conditions that anyone may seek to place upon them. If my hon. Friend's constituency is of such outstanding natural beauty, but without the capital letters at the beginning of each word, it is probably best if the county council turns down the application. If the company then wants to appeal to the Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member who has moved from being the coal Minister to being the appropriate Minister at the Department of the Environment will give close attention to that application. We must recognise that the position is grotesquely unsatisfactory.
§ Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the Government have weakened the planning powers of local authorities to refuse permission on environmental grounds. Local authorities are now told to take the financial aspects into consideration—that means the commercial interests of those making the 210 application for opencasting. That is weakening the powers of local authorities and creating havoc for the local communities.
§ Mr. Dobson
That is certainly the case. Ministers say that they are green; indeed, they are practically coming into the House wearing green suits. However, they have not withdrawn any of the ludicrous circulars that were issued when the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) was the Secretary of State for the Environment. He basically said, "If any rich Tories in business want to make a planning application, it will be granted." That is a rough summary of the circulars that he issued.
§ Mr. Dobson
As my hon. Friend points out, there was a caveat that that should not apply to an application for building development within the view of the former Secretary of State's house. There were obviously certain special considerations from time to time.
§ Mr. Dobson
Yes, they are snide remarks. However, it is humbug—the only description I can use in the House —for a Secretary of State to go around the country saying, "You must give up your view and put up with noise and filth for the sake of other people having homes or for the sake of the country's industrial development—but that does not apply to a planning application near my house."
On the problems of small operators in opencasting, the report from the Durham Area Miners Support Group says:As private operators tend to apply for smaller pockets of coal which can be worked relatively quickly, they claim that their operations are only temporary.However, once operators have started on a site and obtained permission to work on it, they return and make further applications for work in adjoining or adjacent areas. That has proved a useful way of sidestepping the 25,000 tonnes licensing limit. In future, they will make multiple applications for 250,000 tonnes. They will do it in the same way, but on a much larger scale.
One operator in the north-east applied for four changes to the conditions, including to beallowed to run the washery on the site on a 24-hour basis"—which was noisy. It also asked to beallowed to destroy a belt of trees which in their original application they had argued would be left as it added interest to the landscape while the site was recovering.It took the trees some time to recover as they were chopped down. There is little sign that they are restored to their former health. Sites have been left unrestored for years.
I shall cite an example to justify our proposal for introducing a requirement for applicants to place a bond with the county council. At present, they can be required by British Coal to place a bond with British Coal, but that does not necessarily do the trick because British Coal's relationship with those people is not just to do with the environment. In Durham, the county council asked British Coal to invoke a bond. British Coal duly informed the council:No decision as to the possible use of the bond can be taken until the corporation has resolved other financial mattersnot with the orginal applicant, butwith the receiver.211 It was interested in taking the bond money to make up for other moneys that it did not get from the receiver when the company had gone bust. The problem was that that bond was not used simply to protect the environment. Our proposal means that the bond would be used only to protect the environment. It would have to be placed with the county council and, if the operators failed to comply with the conditions on the site or failed to restore the site, they would lose their bond money.
As anyone who has anything to do with opencast operators knows—and it can apply to British Coal sites as well—things that go wrong and breaches of the operating restrictions that are imposed when an application is granted are difficult to deal with. If they work all night for two or three days and ruin the night's sleep of a neighbouring village, there is not much that the county council can do about it. It can say three days later, "Don't do it again," but it cannot put things right. If operators louse up a watercourse and flood a field or village, that cannot easily be put right. We need the restrictions.
Other aspects of the performance of private operators are equally bothersome. Some of the sites move from the opencast executive of British Coal to the private operators or back again, depending on the size of the workings. That swapping about is not intended to improve the environment or to protect the interests of neighbouring communities.
Another aspect that needs to be considered, which is bringing the operators, the county councils and the system into dispute, in County Durham in particular, is what might be called the transfer of staff—that is the best interpretation of it—between the regulatory authorities and the organisations that they are supposed to be regulating. In recent times, a planning officer and a land and property officer from Durham county council went to work for one of the mining companies. Then a person who did land agency work for that council went to work for the same mining company, and shortly afterwards they were joined by the ex-chief executive of a district council in County Durham. I shall say no more about that, but corruption charges are outstanding at the moment.
I do not suggest that any of the interchanges of staff are necessarily corrupt. I certainly am not saying that about a person who worked in land management for Durham county council and who moved to another company, or a person who was the planning officer with the Gateshead metropolitan borough, who went to yet another of the operators. However, as one legal officer from Durham county council recently pointed out, due to the number of staff who have left the county council to go and work for the private opencast companies, the private operators now know the Durham county structure plan better than the planning department staff. That brings the system into disrepute, and it should be avoided.
If the Government purblindly and stupidly insist on going ahead with a tenfold increase in the maximum size of opencast private workings, there should be parallel strengthening of the planning laws to protect local people, who are sick to death of the sites that they already have. The amendments are intended to achieve that.
The Minister may say that the amendments are technically at fault, or that the Government cannot accept them tonight. However, if the Government are serious 212 about trying to protect the environment of people in coalfield communities, they should either accept the amendments or put similar amendments into the Bill in the House of Lords, and we should happily give them a fair wind when they come back to the House.
§ Mr. Lester
I thank the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) for telling me that he was going to mention parts of my constituency in his speech.
I have considerable sympathy with his basic premise that if we intend to extract more coal by the opencast method, we must ensure that extraction is controlled by the most stringent planning conditions and environmental controls that can be conceived.
The Select Committee on Energy has described opencast mining as:One of the most environmentally destructive processes that is going on in the United Kingdom.Certainly, in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire—the counties mentioned during discussion of the last amendment—the Committee regarded opencast mining as a most serious environmental problem.
In the previous debate, we talked about the cost of coal. It was said that one reason why it is not costed correctly is the lack of protest from those most critically affected by subsidence. Of course, subsidence arises after the coal has been extracted and not much can be done about it. The Secretary of State gave figures—the backlog of 37,000 unprocessed claims has been reduced to 25,000—which show the scale of the problem. When we talk about opencast mining and the assets that we hope to extract, we are talking about the future. I can assure the Minister that opencast mining will not get through on the side, because there is understandably great opposition from local groups already.
I pay tribute to the groups that operate in my constituency to oppose the principle of opencast mining. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) in his place, and I know that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) will support my point of view.
Nowadays, it is not enough to say to people who live in mining or ex-mining communities that one should not be surprised if people want to extract coal when one comes to live in a coal mining area. No one who goes to live in a village knows how much coal lies underneath it.
§ Mr. Hood
I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Does he agree that many people who move into former mining communities do so on the understanding that there will be no more harrassment from mining works? When they move in they are confronted with proposals for opencast mining. One cannot say that it is their fault because they knew that they were moving into a mining community.
§ Mr. Lester
People make exhaustive surveys before they buy property, but I have never seen a survey which says that there are workable coal reserves underneath a house, and that one must anticipate that someone will want to extract that coal.
We are moving into green field sites. That is certainly the experience of my constituents. In the past, opencast mining has been sold on the basis that it uses derelict sites, and will improve them. I pay tribute to the Coal Board because it has certainly improved parts of 213 Nottinghamshire. The Flowers report suggested that 15 per cent. of opencast coal mining was on derelict land but the other figure given by local authorities—25 per cent.—is probably more accurate.
With the increasing pressure from the Department of Energy to extract cheaper coal—opencast is usually cheaper—the question of the environmental effects of moving into green field sites is serious.
§ Mr. Peter Rost (Erewash)
My hon. Friend referred to the report by the Select Committee on Energy. One of its recommendations, which I strongly support, is that the licensing process should go back to the Department of Energy, as was the case with oil and gas licensing. That would provide a first vetting system whereby the Department could say which areas are environmentally suitable and which are not, before planning applications are entered. That would provide more safeguards than the present system, in which the Coal Board retains the patronage for issuing licences, subject only to planning approval.
§ Mr. Lester
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. One of the great things that has happened in Nottinghamshire, for which I give enormous credit to the present Secretary of State for Wales, is Operation Eyesore. People who work in local government may remember it. Under the scheme, the Government gave 100 per cent. grants to deal with problems caused by mining—to get rid of tips, to level areas and to introduce new controls to change the face of the countryside. That certainly happened in Nottinghamshire. The ugly, tall tips, the black-topped mountains and all the consequences of coal extraction without proper environmental controls are memories now.
I was chairman of the county finance committee at the time that Operation Eyesore was introduced, and we contributed a pound for every pound that the Government gave and doubled the funds. We cleared Nottinghamshire of the eyesores inherited from the coal industry. I still drive through Nottinghamshire and point out sites that used to be such eyesores. Now, one would not think that those areas had ever been affected by mining. I regret that we now seem to be taking the retrograde step of promoting opencast mining, which has serious environmental effects, and despite modern methods, we will recreate those problems.
As the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) said, in his constituency they are talking about opencast mining for 20 or 30 years. The potential opencast sites in my constituency, such as Shilo north, which is the subject of a planning inquiry, Beauvale, which is mentioned in the books of D. H. Lawrence, and Robinettes, are green field sites. As the name suggests, Beauvale is a beautiful place, and those areas are among the most attractive parts of my constituency. If the proposals for opencast mining go through, my constituency will be affected for between 25 and 30 years.
§ Mr. Steinberg
Applications are now coming in for development of the exceptionally beautiful landscape around a small village in my constituency that has been a coal extraction site for many years. Millions have already been spent on the reclamation of old industrial sites in villages within a two-mile radius; now there is the possibility of a 20 or even 30-year extraction programme in this green field site. All that money has gone down the 214 drain, and now the descendants of the families who first experienced the problems of coal extraction—which has continued for hundreds of years—must put up with identical problems caused by opencast mining. It is crazy.
§ Mr. Lester
That reinforces my case. If we are seriously considering opencast mining as an active policy, we must view it more globally, as did the Select Committee on Energy. Under the new mineral-extraction procedures, need no longer has to be proved, but we must consider the cost and the likely impact on the environment.
I believe that expensive inquiries such as the one that has already taken place in a site in my constituency are not "costed into" the eventual cost of coal extraction. Heavy legal fees may be involved, as the representation of all the objectors may last for two or three months. However, no one has considered the cost of overall compensation paid to a community for the noise, dust, lorries and general nuisance that the process will involve, and for the fact that the very face of the community will be changed. Under present legislation, that cannot possibly be taken into account.
It is, of course, possible to agree on the development of cricket fields or sports pavilions on certain sites, and we have helped such developments to come about. No one has anticipated the proposed work in these green field sites, however, and the principle of maintaining maximum control and the highest possible standards is therefore essential. I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that neither the House of Commons nor our constituents will simply acquiesce in the various schemes. We need an overall strategy on opencasting; we should not rely on a hotch-potch of policies in the hope that we shall win where we can. My hon. Friend should think through such a strategy, along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. A newspaper article headed "Opencast hot seat" describes a confrontation with my right hon. Friend, who freely admits that the most difficult decision that he must make—in a quasi-judicial capacity—concerns mineral extraction, not just coal extraction.
The principle behind the amendments should be considered, in the interests of the environment as well as those of the coal and electricity industries. We need a range of much tighter controls on both private and public contractors, to ensure that the only sites to be worked are those that can he worked with the least damage to the environment and local communities. We should perhaps consider a system of preparatory licensing, rather than embarking on expensive planning inquiries that will take for ever and, having spent all that money, end up without enough safeguards. I ask my hon. Friend not to dismiss the amendments lightly, as they deal with a matter that concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House.
§ Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
I endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), who spoke with the aid of direct constituency knowledge. I am sure that the Minister will take his words to heart, and will recognise that the issue must be confronted. The bald statement in this short Bill that opencast mining licences will raise the production limit from 25,000 to 250,000 tonnes will ring alarm bells in many communities where the horrors of opencasting are already known. A possible tenfold increase will affect a much larger area and many more communities, and the Government must give us an idea of other criteria that may be applied.
215 The hon. Member for Broxtowe rightly referred to the pressure for an expansion of opencasting. He said that the coal would be cheaper, but that will depend on how we "cost" the environment, and unfortunately we have no mechanism with which to do that at present. The Secretary of State has said that he is looking into some of the suggestions made by academics and economists who have proposed the use of taxation or some other financial mechanism to put a price on environmental pressures, but at present not even the cost of a public inquiry—which imposes a considerable burden on the community—is counted in the cost of acquiring the coal, and certainly the disruption and damage suffered by communities is not taken into account. The Departments of Energy and of the Environment should put their heads together and try to establish improved environmental criteria and codes of practice.
The amendments—although useful, valuable and worth taking seriously—all relate to the restoration of sites after workings are completed. It should be written into the Bill, that advance funding will be provided, so that if a company goes bankrupt, the community is not left to bear the cost, but we must also ensure that environmental costs are taken into account while the workings are in place, through a code of practice guaranteeing minimum exposure.
An operator may wish to open up an extensive area because that is the cheapest and easiest way of getting at the coal, but more limited workings that could later be reinstated and moved on to another phase would reduce environmental damage. We should also seek transport and access measures that would not put all the pressure on one area for 20 or 30 years. The environmental impact of workings must be minimised, even if cost is involved.
It is slightly disturbing that we should be asked to legislate for such an extension of coal-mining practice in the absence of new criteria and codes of practice, and the Minister will do the House and the public a service if he can inform us that the Government have any new ideas. Without such reassurances, the news of a tenfold increase in licence allocation will give no comfort to many coalfield communities.
§ Mr. Ashby
I welcome the Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State to the Department of Energy because I detect the presence of a completely new spirit in that Department. That new attitude represents, I believe, a breath of fresh air. The problems that have faced that Department over the years have been such that I hope that the window is always kept open and that we shall continue to have fresh air blowing in, because significant changes must be made in the extraction of coal in Britain.
I do not agree with those who say that we should support the coal industry no matter what. Rather, we must look at the total costing, including that to the environment, before we embark on a given project. I should be happier to import coal from, say, South Africa and Australia, where it is cheaper, in the sure knowledge that later our own coal will have risen in value to the extent that we can extract it at a price that will be profitable and 216 that will take into account the environmental impact of extraction, because, as I say, we must look at the totality of the cost.
I represent a constituency that has been devastated by opencast mining. Indeed, I consider it to be one of the worst areas for opencasting.
§ Mr. Ashby
Yes. Not only do I have a home in the constituency but I have just purchased a new house there, and there are plans for an enormous opencast site right next door to that house, although I purchased it in the knowledge that the application would take place. I assure Opposition Members that I have witnessed the effects of opencast mining on my area and the people who live there.
The Bill is intended to grant licences for large amounts of extraction. Will the Minister say—he may care to answer in writing—how many sites there have been in Britain over the years when extraction of 25,000 tonnes has been exceeded? In other words, does he know how often the licensed amount has been greatly exceeded? I assure him that there are many such examples, and if he does not believe me he should come to my constituency and see for himself.
There has been sharp practice by British Coal over the years. We note that, for opencasting, British Coal deposits long-term plans. A private operator makes an application for a certain tonnage, and then goes over that amount. The opencast division of British Coal takes over the site and says that the operator is acting as its agent or under contract to it. In that way, British Coal gets more from a given area, and a lot of sharp practice of that type is going on.
Over the years, British Coal, in most coal-mining areas, has been Big Brother. One need only examine the legislation on the subject to see the effect that that has had. For many years, large numbers of Opposition Members were members of, or were sponsored by, the NUM—whether or not under the Hastings agreement—and they used to kow-tow to British Coal. Whatever British Coal said, they agreed to.
For a long time we lived with that attitude of subservience to British Coal—[Interruption.] That was the case. I witnessed it. Indeed, in many areas in which people were employed largely by British Coal they had a feeling of subservience to British Coal. As a result, things took place which in other areas would never have been allowed to occur. People were afraid to object or to take on British Coal. They agreed to things to which nobody else would have agreed. British Coal got away with murder in some areas, and it is still getting away with murder.
In environmental terms, there is the possibility of the deposit of a bond. That is a good idea, but we must not lose sight of the fact that local authorities receive rating revenue in relation to the number of tonnes of extraction from sites. It has always been difficult to discover how much they get. It took me two years of questioning and research to find out the percentage, but I have never been able to discover how much a local authority receives for any one site.
Local authorities will never divulge that information; that money goes into the general rating fund and never returns to the affected areas. The community is entitled to restoration and some compensation, and to a large extent the money for that is there and has come from the 217 extraction process. That money should be used—because it is available—by local authorities and county councils in the areas that have been devastated and destroyed by opencast mining. The money should be used not only to repair roads and so on but to make the environnmental improvements that are needed.
§ Mr. Skinner
Many years ago, the Tory-controlled Derbyshire county council had a policy which was, by and large, to allow any opencast application by the opencast executive of British Coal to go through. In 1981, we had a change of administration locally. The Labour group got control and it decided to adopt the policy that, when hon. Members who represented the areas concerned objected, such opencast applications would be opposed, and to a degree that policy has been successful. British Coal has on occasion conducted separate inquiries and won the day, with the support of the Tory Government and the Secretary of State for the Environment.
Meanwhile, the Labour-controlled Derbyshire county council has had a proud record in opposing opencast mining applications, and that flies in the face of what the hon. Member has said. I assure him that that council has been supported in its policy by those working in the mines and by local councillors, and many opencast applications have been opposed by me, supported by many of my hon. Friends.
In other words, in my part of the world, the people who have supported British Coal have been the Tory-controlled Derbyshire county council, Tory councils in general and Tory Secretaries of State who have allowed mammoth opencastings to proceed. That is why I am currently opposing the application at the Pinnock site, the application at Slayley, the one at Stanfree that has reared its ugly head, and the application at Rainge near Morton and Clay Cross. I and many of my hon. Friends are opposing all of them, because those applications are designed to line the pockets of the friends of the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West.
§ Mr. Ashby
To some extent, I am pleased to hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I urge him to cross the border into Leicestershire and speak to those who run the Labour-controlled Leicestershire county council, who always lie down and do exactly what British Coal asks them, and who grant one planning permission after another. I attack the Labour party in Leicestershire, the members of which have acted disgracefully towards the people of north-west Leicestershire. I blame them for much of what has happened in my constituency.
I did not want to put this matter on a party political basis, but the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) should know that the story of planning applications in Leicestershire is totally different from the story in Derbyshire.
We also have the problem of old consents which do not allow for the full and proper restoration of sites. There should be a review of sites with old consents, and modern conditions should be placed on them. There is a site—one of the many areas of devastation in my constituency—which started off as a small clay extraction. It began with a pottery firm, and only a small amount of clay was required. After 10 or 12 years, that pottery firm was taken over by a larger pottery firm, and in due course that was taken over not by another pottery firm but by a company which was interested in extracting coal.
218 That firm is using the existing consent to make an application for the extraction of 25,000 tonnes. It has bought all the land, going way back. We all know that that is not a 25,000-tonne application but one for 250,000 or 300,000 tonnes. The consents in respect of the original site are old and do not provide for proper restoration. I am getting no satisfaction from the company or from the county council in terms of the proper restoration of the site.
What we really require is not the separation of the licensing and the planning, but a coming together of the two. We in Leicestershire want an insistence on long-term planning for extraction. We all understand that there is coal under the ground which at some time will have to be extracted by opencast mines, because we need the energy, but it is not difficult to accept that a certain hill or park has reserves that we plan to take out in 30, 40 or 50 years' time, and to put in a planning application now. Then we could specify that trees should be planted for afforestation of the area.
There is no need for us to devastate the countryside. We should plant trees around a site and then extract the coal from the centre. Nobody would know the extraction was taking place, as the forest would deaden the sound and the dust and would improve the environment.
§ Mr. Ashby
Not if they are properly planted. In that way, we would achieve the necessary extraction in the long term, while ensuring that it was environmentally acceptable.
In north-west Leicestershire, we are hoping for a new midlands forest which will stretch from the Charnwood forest across Derbyshire to Staffordshire. That is a delightful concept, which has my total support. What is really needed is a policy from the Department of Energy and from British Coal that includes the concept of a forest, bearing in mind the requirements of the Department of Energy and the environmental effects. We should apply the concept that the dirty, noisy, nasty extraction can be carried out in a way that is acceptable environmentally and to everyone. If we do that, we shall be successful.
It is no good for an area to have an opencast mine such as Coalfield north in the Ravenstone area—a large opencast mine which operates for 10 or 12 years and causes great upheaval. When there are explosions, the houses shake and that causes damage, although British Coal always says that it is not responsible, despite the fact that the damage always occurs after an explosion. British Coal continually denies responsibility. One could put up with one opencast mine, but having suffered 12 years of one site as soon as that site is finished there will be another one right next door to it and then there will be another, until they encircle the entire area. We can never get away from it.
If we are to allow opencast mines of such a size, extracting 250,000 tonnes, there has to be only one licence per area at any given time. When that licence has been exhausted, the area must have a chance to rest and the people who live there must be given the opportunity to live a normal life away from opencasting. There should be a gap at least 20 years before there is another series of opencasting in the area.
219 7.45 pm
The friends of the hon. Member for Bolsover on Leicestershire county council take the view that the coal is there, and that the sooner it is extracted the better. That means 50 or 60 years of absolute hell for the people who live in north-west Leicestershire, and presumably it will be heaven for our grandchildren. But no doubt there will be something else to be extracted when the coal is finished and the hon. Gentleman's friends, if they exist then—I doubt that they will exist, given the current political climate—will insist—
§ Mr. Barron
The Labour party does not control North-West Leicestershire district council, but the hon. Gentleman is making all those accusations. Surely he should be levelling his accusations at the Department of the Environment, which changed the regulations for opencast coal, giving people the right to mine coal before there is any development on the land. The Government whom the hon. Gentleman supports have done all the damage.
§ Mr. Ashby
The hon. Gentleman has got it absolutely wrong. The Labour party, together with its Liberal allies, absolutely controls Leicestershire county council. The Labour party also controls North-West Leicestershire district council. The Conservatives do not control either council, so the hon. Gentleman's friends are responsible all the way along.
§ Mr. Ashby
In a moment.
It is really a question of long-term planning and taking into account the history of an area—how much opencasting there has been in the past and how much devastation has occurred—and deciding what should be done in future. It is important to have long-term plans and to consider the past and the future. In that way, people can just about live alongside opencast mining. It is absolutely essential that long-term planning should take into account past planning, that there should be only one opencast mine at a time and that there should be environmental preparation for a given opencast site before such a site is allowed.
§ Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)
Having listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Ashby), I trust that he will be with us in the Lobby tonight. He could go at least that modest distance, as our amendments are modest compared with many of the problems.
In one month last summer, British Coal, supported by the Government, closed two pits in my constituency—two of the six pits that have been closed in the past 18 months in a 25-mile radius. In the same 18 months, British Coal and private opencast operators have proposed to dig up both sides of my valley and the neighbouring valley. The communities put up with many of the problems of deep-mine pits in our valleys, because we believed in those jobs. Having closed those pits and sealed off millions of tonnes of reserves by capping the shafts of Merthyr Vale 220 colliery within a month of the closure, the very communities that supported the industry and sacrificed their environment are not willing to sacrifice it any longer.
The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester)—99 per cent. of whose speech I support—spoke about the green field sites. I should tell him that the existing coal mining valley communities also want to join the environmental protection society as much as those who are threatened.
There is coal in every one of my hillsides. There is no doubt about that. They do not need much drilling, although drilling is already taking place. There is coal in all our hillsides—tonnes of it—but the communities have had enough.
We accept the need to diversify our economy. One of the clearest contradictions of the clause which we seek to amend is the economic contradiction of the lessons that we are being taught by the Government. The Prime Minister, in a rare visit to a Welsh mining community recently, told the people to cheer up, to consider the change in the environment and the need to diversify economically, to create light industry and to develop the service and tourist industries. Before she came, and even before the present Secretary of State for Wales came, we had been doing just that. We had recognised that we had to change the basis of the economy and get away from the dirty, extractive industries to a high-tech industrial service sector. We are in the process of doing that, supported by the Secretary of State for Wales in his valleys initiative.
I will give one classic example in my constituency to illustrate the contradiction in the clause. We are building a new business park in Pentrebach in the middle of the Merthyr valley. It will be a beautiful development with modern factories. At the centre of the business park are the business headquarters of the Welsh Development Agency. The site looks good. It will be a prime valley industrial site for light industry and other commercial development.
Within the last week or two, there has been an application by a private opencast contractor to claim 40,000 tonnes. That is the interesting figure; he is already jumping the gun set by the 25,000 tonnes. He has obviously read the Bill or understood months ago that this provision was on its way.
Where is the development proposed? It is immediately in the vicinity of the new business park. There are coal tips which we can clear. There is tremendous support for land reclamation such as we have done since 1, as a junior Minister in the Welsh office in 1969, helped to set up the original derelict land unit. We have done an amazing job. We have cleared tips and altered the landscape by developing grassland. Now there are proposals to dig up the virgin countryside and copses of trees which create a good backdrop to the new business park at Pentrebach.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) does not mind me saying so, I think that he was too kind to British Coal in his opening remarks. The amendments do not go far enough in regard to the existing operations of British Coal in south Wales. It was British Coal opencast executive that dug one of the largest holes in Europe in my constituency. The Trecatti site is 600 ft deep. It took 20 years at Dowlais Top to do it. The people of Dowlais Top suffered blasting, noise and dust for 20 years. Then it all came to an end. There was a genuine sigh of relief. With the skills that we have to grow grass on our hillsides, even on reclaimed waste land, within six months we had magnificent green grass, with sheep grazing on it.
221 What happened? Within months of the appearance of the new environment, British Coal wanted to develop the area next to it. That means ravaging part of the restored and reclaimed site. When pits are being closed, bringing the loss of jobs that we wanted to maintain, one can imagine the reaction when British Coal at the same time wants to destroy the environment. When people in the area have put up with an environmental handicap for 20 years, hon. Members can imagine their anger and frustration.
There has been reference to existing planning consents. I can give another illustration, which reinforces the point about the impact that ill-thought-out schemes can have on the immediate environment. The residents came to see me about it only last Saturday. For years, the people of Rhymney had to put up with an existing consent for opencasting. One consequence was a change in the watercourses on the hillside. One night, suddenly all the houses were flooded. That had never happened before. When the opencast site was complete, the hillside was redrained.
A few weeks ago, drilling rigs from British Coal turned up and started drilling within 60 yards of the houses. British Coal is prospecting for more coal on the very hillside where it caused problems which led to the flooding of the houses. The drilling did not require planning permission or any consultation with the community. British Coal is still drilling. I want a message to go out loud and clear from the House: we cannot stop British Coal drilling but it will not get planning consent from any district or county council to reopen the hillsides of our community.
I support the amendments. My community, which for 200 years sacrificed the environment for economic development, has been told to learn different tricks, different economic arts and a different basis for the development of its economy. We wish to change faster, because the job gains are not matching the job losses, but we are not willing to suffer again the ravaging of our hillsides and the raping of our mountains. The Secretary of State for Wales has a fine environment in his constituency of Worcester, and has been supporting developments such as I have described in my constituency and in his valleys initiative. When county councils and district councils refuse to give planning permission for opencast development, whether to British Coal or private contractors, we shall expect the Secretary of State for Wales to stand up for our environment.
I support the amendments, but we need to go further. We should send out a message loud and clear from the House that environmental protection applies not only to marvellous countryside but also to communities that have sacrificed their environment in the past but are no longer willing to do so.
§ Mr. Rost
I want to add my support to the concern expressed on both sides of the House about opencast mining. While I am in sympathy with the amendments tabled by the Labour Members, I think that they are asking the impossible. They are really demanding that British Coal, a commercial producer which is anxious to produce as much coal as possible, should also act as regulator. That is impractical. It is like expecting the nationalised water boards to regulate and prosecute themselves.
That is the very reason why I have argued that the whole licensing system must go back to the Department in 222 the same way that oil and gas licensing is in the hands of the Department. Before an oil company is granted a licence to explore or develop for oil or gas, onshore of offshore, the Department vets whether it is a suitable area and imposes conditions which have to be complied with if the operator is allowed to go ahead. Until such time as the coal reserves are vested again in the Department of Energy on behalf of the State and are then licensed under a vetting system, there cannot be any sensible national planning policy.
It is quite unreasonable to expect British Coal to do other than grant whatever licences it thinks it can get away with, and it is unreasonable to expect independent planning inquiries to protect the interests of a local community or wider environmental issues.
I argue that the amendments should go much further. The Department should be responsible for the licensing process, so that there can be a pre-vetting system and a national strategy for opencast mining. Applicants for licences would know that they are being granted licences for opencast mining only when the Department, with its independent monitoring team, can assure itself that it is a satisfactory and suitable area for opencast mining. They would be subject to the criteria of planning approval and of the licence, such as restoring the site properly and environmental protection, which would lead to a far more orderly system of opencast development that is far more acceptable to the communities most affected by it.
§ 8 pm
§ Mr. Hardy
At various times in their political careers, all Conservative Members have demanded that we uphold the law. I was particularly interested by the speech made by the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby), in which he referred to the law and the limit of 25,000 tonnes. About 18 months ago, I discovered that clause 32 of the coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 imposed the limit of 25,000 tonnes and raised the matter in a parliamentary question. Some people in British coal and some private contractors were not very pleased with me at the time, which may be one of the reasons why the Government have decided to bend over backwards to facilitate those who previously were helping themselves. The speech made by the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West suggested that he will approve of my speech, because I also will ask the House to uphold the law.
Amendment No. 4 may seem rather odd, but it is extremely relevant. I shall give a few historic details so that the House can appreciate the context in which I present it.
The enclosure of our common land proceeded until 1840, and 4,000 Acts of Enclosure were passed, almost all of which were for the lowlands of England. I obviously have not read all of them, many of which are kept on long rolls in the other place. After 1840, enclosure procedures were covered by a general Act, but before then there were 4,000 of them. Some referred to relatively small areas of common land, but others covered substantial areas.
My attention was first drawn to those Acts in 1980, when I was seeking to protect the hedgerow. In their greenery, the Government have blocked every attempt to protect hedgerows. My attention was drawn to the fact that, invariably, private Enclosure Acts required that the common land enclosed when fields were established be protected by hedgerows in perpetuity. This is a serious matter, because those Acts have never been repealed. It 223 would suit me if the Government decided that they could ignore those laws and that the terms of the enclosure legislation were no longer legal, because I could say, "Very well, we will return the land to the people." We could restore the common to the descendants of the owner of the goose in the doggerel quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson).
I should find that a matter for rejoicing, but the Government will not agree to such a dramatic change.
It is interesting that commons were enclosed largely because of the argument that as the population of England swelled in the industrial revolution, food production had to increase and agricultural efficiency had to be achieved. Yet now, we are talking about reducing agricultural production, so perhaps there is a case for the repeal of the commons legislation.
In amendment No. 4, I am being perfectly reasonable—I hope that the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West will not say that I am being subservient—in merely asking the Government to uphold the law.
I first raised the matter in a question to a Minister of Agriculture. I can recall that Minister—I have spoken to him today—leaning on the Dispatch Box and confidently saying, "I have reason to believe that these old measures no longer apply." I took up the matter and correspondence ensued. I established that the last case on the subject was Pratt v. Garnett in 1928. The law was upheld in that case. I pointed out to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that, over the previous 30 or 40 years, millions of pounds of ratepayers' money had been spent on grants for farmers to grub out hedgerows. The Ministry had never bothered to check on that, but I said to the Minister, "You must accept that a huge amount of ratepayers' money, under successive Governments, has been given in grants to grub out hedgerows, which are required to be maintained under the Enclosure Acts."
I found the correspondence with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods entertaining. The Minister said, "It is not our fault. If someone has been given a grant for grubbing out a hedgerow, we could not have been expected to be aware of the Enclosure Acts; he should have been aware of them, in which case we shall have to recover the full amount of grant that has been paid."
Some Conservative Members think that the Labour party does not like farmers, which is quite untrue. I recognise that such a burden and blow to an agricultural practitioner could be almost ruinous. I did not wish farmers to be bankrupted, so I drew the matter to the attention of the National Farmers Union.
I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Energy on his appointment. He sat through the Committee's proceedings on the Bill last week. He will recall that last Thursday I gave him notice of this matter. The fact remains—the Minister must confirm this—that the law stands. A private Act of Enclosure is almost certain to include a requirement that the fields established shall be surrounded by a thorn fence and that it shall be maintained in perpetuity.
Amendment No. 4 is entirely in accordance with the law of the land. I am aware of a case in Lincolnshire—this applied in many parts of the eastern counties—where the persons enclosing the land were required not only to plant 224 and maintain a hedge in perpetuity but to protect it by oaken fencing three rails high. An area in Lincolnshire was turned into a Royal Air Force bomber command station during the war. No one then could have put the interests of the Enclosure Acts and the environment before the needs of the nation, but now we are talking not about the needs of the nation, but about money sharks who want quick investments and to cook the books, to make a quick profit, to rape the countryside and to destroy communities. I do not believe that our historic law should be ignored so that a few sharks, who will have more friends among Conservative Members than among Labour Members, can make a lot of money.
I have been involved in conservation for a long time. I recall that when we established the position about enclosure, I said to conservation bodies that we should establish a test case and that it would be useful to fund such a case. In all the cases known to me in the past three or four years in which a farmer was about to grub out an enclosure hedgerow, and was warned that he would be breaking the law and that action would be taken, he retreated.
In my own constituency, for example, I learned a couple of years ago that a landowner was proposing to take out some hedgerows. I sent him a courteous note and said that I was sure that he would be aware that the area concerned was enclosed common land and that the local enclosure award required the perpetual maintenance of the hedgerow. He replied immediately, saying that I was aggressive and threatening. I said that I was merely telling him what the law of the land was. I said that I thought he held a copy of the enclosure award, but that if he was in doubt, there was a copy of it in Rotherham library. In fact, copies of most of the enclosure awards for the area can be found in Rotherham library and every one of them has a requirement for the perpetual provision of hedgerows.
The other day, a little girl called Charlotte Bowen from Rawmarsh wrote me a splendid letter in which she expressed her concern about a small pond, which is served by Colliers brook. I wrote to the borough council, which said that the problem was that it did not know who owned the pond. It pointed out that British Coal might wish to carry out opencast mining and to destroy the pond, which Charlotte showed me a few days ago. However, the area was covered by an Enclosure Act; in fact a considerable area in South Yorkshire is covered by Enclosure Acts.
I must tell the Minister that, as a law-abiding, constitutionalist Member of Parliament, I am not prepared to see the law ignored for the purposes of greed or for the environment in my area to be subject to the strains that we thought we had seen the last of in 1950. There was opencast mining around the villages of Wath upon Dearne and Wentworth in the 1940s and 1950s. Much attention was paid to that in the national press at the time and we were assured that everything would be restored properly. However, the farmers in that area still cannot grow potatoes half a century later. I made that point to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) in Committee the other day.
The problem is that although there was a great deal of upheaval in the 1940s and in the 1950s from the opencast operations there, we now see greater engineering capacity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) reminded us. Opencast mining 225 can now go deep. No area in the existing coalfield is likely to be free from the attentions of the private money-grabbing opencasters.
The opencast mining in my area in the 1940s and in the 1950s took out two or three seams of coal near the surface, but there are another four or five seams of coal that are accessible to opencast mining on a large scale. I am not prepared to see an area such as mine, where pits have been closed and where there has been complete disdain and disregard of local needs by half the members of the present Government, treated in that way.
I am sorry to have to refer to this matter on successive days in the House. An area of my constituency spills over in the west into the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) and in the east into the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay). Every pit in the Dearne valley has closed, as have the glass works and the coking plants. What was once the largest railway coal concentration yard in Europe has closed.
In the middle of that area, there are 2,711 drums of toxic waste, about which the Government do not seem to be the slightest bit concerned. As I said yesterday, had those drums been in Surrey or in Finchley—would that they had been—the Government might have taken action. It is not acceptable for us to have that amount of dereliction to our north and then to face the risk of environmentally destructive opencast mining to the south.
In view of the pathetically small sums available for derelict land grants, there is no reason for hon. Members who represent coalfield areas to fall over backwards to accommodate such ruinous developments. I am opposed to them. 1 am glad that the areas that were enclosed—and a large proportion of lowland England was enclosed—had invariably to be surrounded by fences, thorn fences or hedgerows which had to be maintained perpetually. I want the Minister to assure us tonight that all the people who will be queueing up to opencast, to destroy the environment and to rape our green heritage will be made aware that they must not carry out their opencast mining if it means that hedgerows which the law says must be there for ever are to be destroyed. I am not a lawyer, although I have consulted lawyers about this matter in the past. However, I hope that the Minister will accept that the Enclosure Acts may be old, but that they still have meaning and considerable value in protecting the environment in the coalfields.
§ Mr. Hood
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) is not in his place, because I want to comment on his reference to some of my colleagues who were formerly miners and members of the National Union of Mineworkers. He said that over the years, we had been subservient to British Coal. I was a miner for 23 years and I am still a member of the NUM. I can remember many occasions when area directors wanted to speak to me and when colliery managers wanted to remonstrate or to reminisce with me. I can assure hon. Members that the one word that they never used to describe me in 23 years in the pits was "subservient". It was an interesting comment and may prove how much the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West knows about the mining industry.
226 Opencast mining is an environmental problem that always excites heated debate, and our debate today has been heated and good. We must always remember that planning authorities are—and must remain—the custodians of the local community and of the environment. When discussing planning applications for opencast mining, they have to balance commercial need and the effect on the environment.
Last week in Committee, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) made a comment about previous planning refusals for opencast mining. He had statistics which showed that 80 per cent. of the planning applications that were refused were under Labour authorities. I said that I hoped that he was not trying make a correlation between the authorities that refused permission and the party that was in the majority on them. He said later that that was not the case. The obvious point, as I said in Committee, is that where there are coal reserves, there are usually not many Tory councils, so that point of the hon. Member for Gedling was not relevant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) made an important point, which could apply equally to the Scottish coalfields. There has always been loyalty in Scotland between the local authorities and the coal-mining industry. In Scotland, the deep-mining industry and the opencast mining industry were one. There was always a cross-subsidy, so the deep-mining industry depended on the opencast industry to make it more viable. Our local communities throughout Scotland, almost without exception, had loyalty to mining—that word is not too strong—and tolerated planning applications for opencast mining where they would not normally have done so.
The Scottish coalfield has been devastated since the Government came to office in 1979. It has been ravaged to the extent that we now have one remaining colliery, and have lost 18,500 jobs. Now local authorities are rightly saying that their loyalty has been abused in the past and that they will not allow it to be abused in the future, and we may well find that opencast mining is rightly viewed more critically in Scotland and elsewhere than it has been in the past.
The Bill increases the amount that may be mined from 25,000 tonnes to 250,000 tonnes. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to the abuses that have taken place under the existing laws. In my own area, we have what I describe as plot mining. When the limit was 25,000 tonnes, a firm would be given a licence for that tonnage for one plot, a second licence for another plot, and so on. I can speak with some authority on this, partly because I was a miner for 23 years and partly because I have 140 million tonnes of coal reserves in my constituency, known as the Harpendon coal reserves.
My constituency also has the largest opencast site in Europe—the site named Dalquahandy—where we have 20 million tonnes of proven reserves, a figure which, in the opinion of those who know the area well, could be doubled. Sometimes, in the planning process, those employed in some sections of the industry have ended up on the other side of the table. I remember that, when we were dealing with the Dalquahandy opencast planning application, the regional council planning boss seemed to be pushing British Coal's planning application. He left the regional council with a golden handshake and the next we heard of him was that he was employed by British Coal and had managed to get planning permission for highways 227 for the construction. I dare say that British Coal and the gentleman concerned would say that that was a coincidence, but not many people where I come from believe in such coincidences.
The hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West made an important comment, as did the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester). Opencast mining must be properly planned on a long-term basis. On the Dalquahandy opencast site, development has been started without the proper infrastructure being provided. If we are to allow opencast mining, we must provide the proper infrastructure and long-term planning for dealing with reclamation and restoration. Everything must be in place before we develop sites.
Hon. Members have referred to the activities of individuals and companies engaged in private mining. We all have our own horror stories about the activities of private mining companies that have been given licences by British Coal. Recently, a private licensee came to me complaining that he had had his licence taken off him. When I asked him why, he said that British Coal had been unreasonable. I said, "I'm used to British Coal being unreasonable. How are they being unreasonable now?" He said, "Well, they have closed my little mine down because I owed them £12,000." I asked him, "Why do you owe British Coal money?" He told me that his accountant, had spent £12,000 of the miners' pension contribution. That sum had gone missing, and the poor accountant, who by then had died, got the blame.
We have all heard stories such as that. One mining company in my area—the LAW mining company—has applied for planning permission to drill all over the Douglas basin, where there is loads and loads of coal. That company has been prosecuted many times for dumping in and so polluting our streams and rivers.
Many hon. Members remember the previous chairman of British Coal, Sir Ian MacGregor without affection, although I suppose that some Conservative Members may remember him affectionately. He promised a company that it would get a plot in my constituency known as Townhead near the village of Rigside, with coal reserves of 250,000 tonnes. I give credit to British Coal for insisting that it would not give permission or a licence to mine the Townhead site. It may well be a coincidence that the figure of 250,000 tonnes, promised by Ian MacGregor to the private mining company concerned, is the figure that now appears in the Bill.
I am sure that the Bill will be looked on with horror by villages in my constituency such as Rigside and Ravenstruther. The opencast quarries to which I referred mean that a 32-tonne coal truck goes through the villages every six minutes, 12 hours a day—sometimes 24 hours a day—six days a week. The coal reserves at that site are such that the villages can look forward to 20 years of such harassment and damage to their environment.
The Bill spells disaster for the little villages in Clydesdale. It will do further damage to Rigside and Ravensburgh and other small villages in my constituency. I shall certainly be voting for the amendment and against the Bill.
§ Mr. George Buckley (Hemsworth)
My hon. Friends have given examples of the devastation that is wrought by opencasting. Conservative Members should realise that 228 those of us from mining constituencies are mindful of the fact that opencastings are destined to increase in our area, particularly where pits have recently been closed. In areas where pits have closed—and closures have been fairly extensive since the 1984–85 strike—opencasting applications have almost inevitably been made in respect of the closed colliery sites. As Conservative Members have said, we are concerned that such applications have now been extended to green field sites, which will be even more devastating to the environment.
The closure programme that has been embarked upon by the British coal industry and supported by Conservative Members has reduced employment in mining constituencies. It is unacceptable to our communities that whereas mines may now employ 900 men—for example, Ackton Hall in Featherstone—their opencast equivalents employ a maximum of 30 or 50 men. Opencasting is devastating not only to the environment but to employment prospects in coal mining communities. That is the main reason that local authorities may justifiably oppose opencast mining applications. Areas that have suffered such manpower losses will not accept a continuation of such devastation.
The Bill would extend the tonnages for opencast sites from 25,000 to 250,000. 1 draw the attention of hon. Members to a point that I made in Committee. New section (2A) states:shall not render unlawful anything done in accordance with such a licence.Does the Minister interpret that as stating that licences can be issued in contravention of the legislation? The extension to 250,000 tonnes may, by licence, be extended under the Bill. That would add further devastation to mining areas.
The amendments are necessary to cushion the community from the proposals outlined in the Bill. I would further extend the requirement. An application for a licence to mine 250,000 tonnes should be solely for the relevant local authority. If devastation is to be experienced by a community, it ill behoves the Minister, who is not familiar with that community, to override a local authority on planning applications. Responsibility should be in the hands of local community representatives. The economic viability of and justification for a proposed site and its environmental consequences should be weighed by people who are familiar with the area. The matter should not be in the hands of a Minister who may override the refusal of a planning application.
Because of environmental intrusion, I foresee greater opposition from local people. There was enough devastation in the past, even with the restriction of 25,000 tonnes. The Bill will permit far greater devastation. Will the existing licences that were granted under the 25,000 tonne limit be extended under the proposed legislation? Local people were assured that permission was granted for a limit of only 25,000 tonnes. Certain environmental conditions were agreed. However, conditions and promises will be overridden by the granting of new licences.
People in my constituency were reasonably happy with guarantees of protection. I should like an assurance from the Minister that the figure in the Bill is a maximum tonnage, not a permitted tonnage that can be extended under licence, as set out in clause 4.
229 I hope that Conservative Members, and the Minister in particular, appreciate that the Government have embarked on supposedly environmental legislation. I hope that the principles laid down in the Environmental Protection Bill are embraced in this Bill on behalf of people in mining communities.
Many people move to mining communities on the understanding that mining operations have ceased. They will strongly object to a reduction in the value of their properties as a consequence of a proposed licence to extract coal in the near vicinity of their recently acquired properties. Those people will be at the forefront of protests about environmental devastation.
§ Mr. Skinner
Opposition Members have a fairish chance of winning the vote on this amendment. At least two Tory Members have said that, like Opposition Members, they are very much opposed to the extension of the opencast limit from 25,000 to 250,000 tonnes. I expect the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) to join Opposition Members in the Lobby to support the matters about which he feels angry. Other Tory Members who have reservations now have a great opportunity to declare themselves. They could induce the Secretary of State to vote with them. He does not like the ground in his constituency being disturbed. Of course, it was to do with low-level nuclear waste, but he would not even allow drilling to take place. I have news for the right hon. Gentleman: opencast mining extends over a large area of his constituency. He could accept the amendment, and it would be game, set and match.
We know why there is more opencast mining. It is partly because pits have been closed left, right and centre. Many have been going through occasional or temporary economic problems. The Coal Board has come along, shut the pit and given a nod and a wink to its friends on the opencast executive and its friends in big business and said, "Look here, there is plenty of coal left in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, Scotland"—
§ Mr. Skinner
—and Leicestershire—"You can get the contractor to come along, dig big holes, and make a lot of money." Of course, coincidentally, the combine is engaged in motorway construction. It is very strange. Suddenly, we find great big diggers digging out large sections of motorway. Work is concluded, and people ask, "Have you heard who has the new opencast?" The same people have all the spare machinery and need to occupy it for a certain time. They move from the motorway and start digging a hole in the opencast area.
People talk about market forces. I do not believe that many opencast operations that have taken place in my lifetime, especially since I have been involved in politics, have been carried out on the basis of fair and open competition. It is almost as though people say, "It is your turn for the next one." All hon. Members have heard stories in their constituencies. One firm does one opencast, and then it asks, "Who is going to do the next?" My hon. Friends can recount all the usual stories about how companies move from one area to the next. It has been part and parcel of the pit closure programme. When they have churned out the coal, made large sums of money and left the dereliction behind them, they leave the big hole, and somebody comes along and says, "We will dump some toxic waste in it and make some more money."
230 I have continually said that it is important that we do not have toxic waste—low-level or high-level nuclear waste or any form of waste—dumped in those areas. It is one thing for communities to put up with large-scale opencast mining—even more so if the Bill is passed—but there will be even bigger holes in which to dump rubbish. Dioxin was dumped in my area of Morton. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) can no doubt tell another story.
§ Mr. Hood
I hesitate to mention The Sun newspaper, but there was a report in it only a few weeks ago about the Clay mining company, which had six little mines that were bought for £40,000 and were sold to Lea Waste Disposal Limited for £17 million. That company is to dump toxic waste in those six mines.
§ Mr. Skinner
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What is more, it is worth placing on record, as my hon. Friend did in Committee, the fact that opencast mining companies use some of the profits that they make out of opencast mining and put them into the Tory party's funds to fight elections. I am referring to companies such as—[Interruption.] I hope that "World in Action" will do a programme on this matter as well. I will give it some names to start with. The research has already been done. They include Taylor Woodrow, Costain and Wimpey. They are ready and available to grease the palms of those Tory Members who are to support the Bill.
The real scandal is evidenced in some correspondence that I came across today showing that another opencast and private mine is now going to be developed in the centre of a tiny village in my constituency—which has only a few hundred inhabitants—called Stanfree, where Tommy Swain used to live. All my hon. Friends will remember Tommy. The opencast mine will be within 20 or 30 yards of Tommy Swain's old bungalow, and not only that, but 16 old-age pensioners' bungalows will be within spitting distance of the opencast operation, if it takes place.
I place it on record here and now in Parliament that I am fully behind the Stanfree pressure group that is to oppose the opencast operation and the private drift mine in that village. Just imagine, the Bill has not yet become an Act—it is not yet law—but it is already being anticipated. Those concerned know that opencast operations can now be extended under private licence from 25,000 tonnes to 250,000 tonnes. They know that private mines can be extended in terms of the people working in them from 30 people to 150 people or more.
Already, people are beginning to say that there is money to be had and no doubt some of the money from the Derbyshire mining company that has some proposals on this will be passed to the Tory party. Even if it is only 1 per cent., there is a lot of money to be had and it will probably finish up—
§ Mr. Skinner
The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer. He will probably be one of the lawyers who launder the money from the mining companies and the opencast work into the Tory party.
§ Mr. Ashby
That is a disgraceful and most irregular statement for the hon. Gentleman to make. He should know more about corruption than anybody—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should answer one 231 question. Is there any difference between opencasting on a large scale by British Coal or by companies in the private sector? It is as bad with both. What is the difference?
§ Mr. Skinner
None. Frankly, the hon. Gentleman has been trying to split hairs all night. He has a problem and is full of guilt. He wants to be able to tell his constituents what he has done about opencasting, so I invite him to join us in the Lobby. He can get rid of all his guilt. Guilt is riddling his body. All that he needs to do is a simple thing that will take only a few minutes. He can walk into the Lobby with us when my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) seeks to put the amendment to the vote. That is all that the hon. Gentleman has to do. Indeed, he could bring some of his Tory friends with him—those Tory Members who are making all the noise and who have crocodile tears pouring from their eyes every time they make such speeches. All that they have to do is to go back to their constituents and say, "Judge me by what I did last night and not on anything else."
I understand the hon. Gentleman's problem, but both I and my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) have a problem in our constituencies in respect of the Slaley site and the Pinnock site. The Slaley site was a real scandal. We had an inquiry and the Labour-controlled county council opposed the proposal as did the Labour-controlled Bolsover district council and the parish councils. We had a massive inquiry. We fought the Coal Board and its expensive lawyers and we won because the inspector said that the board could mine the coal for only 11 seconds a day, and you cannot get a much better victory than that. They put the flags out in Clowne and Barlborough.
What a great victory, but what happens? The Secretary of State sits on it. We thought, "Right oh, we've won," but along comes the new green and friendly Secretary of State for the Environment and the first thing he does when he gets the job is to look at the Barlborough, Clowne and Slaley application and overturn the decision. "Old Fag Ash" supported us, but this green and friendly one has allowed the opencast to proceed.
Both I and my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East condemn the Slaley proposal because it should have gone back to the people. They should have been allowed to decide. There is now another proposal called Pinnock site, most of which falls in the constituency of my hon. Friend.
There are four opencast applications within the space of four miles in those two constituencies. Three are massive applications. It is an absolute disgrace. All this is combined with the closure of pits in these areas and there will be even more.
However, when the pits are closed, opencast operations will take only about one third of the reserves. Two thirds will be lost for ever because, once opencast begins, it will not be possible to drift or bore a mine. The coal is lost forever. Two thirds of the coal that belongs to the nation will be completely sterilised. That is short-termism. It means that someone can make a quick buck and line the 232 pockets of those in the Tory party and the opencast executive, but large areas of coal reserves will be lost to the nation forever.
On top of that, there is the problem at Arkwright, a drift mine that was closed recently. Methane gas then poured into the houses in the village and although many families had to be evacuated, British Coal is now saying that it will not pay compensation. I put it on the record before the matter goes to court and becomes sub judice—and this is probably the last chance that I shall have—that I am saying to the Secretary of State, "Look into the Arkwright case." I mentioned this matter several times when the right hon. Gentleman was Leader of the House. Now, in his new job, I am asking him to say to British Coal, "Be decent and honourable and pay out compensation to the families in Arkwright." I repeat that families in my constituency had to leave their homes for weeks because of the methane gas that escaped from that drift mine after it was closed.
There is no doubt that we must vote for the amendment. There is no question about the fact that we do not want Tories coming here, rabbitting on about how much they oppose opencast, but then sneaking away in the night. If those Tory Members really mean it, they have a great opportunity. They can join us in the Lobby and then go back to Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and all the other places before they are defeated in the next general election and say that they used their voices and followed them with their votes. That is the opportunity that is presented to them tonight. 1 hope that some of them have the guts to take it.
§ Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, the hon. Members for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Ashby), and for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), who is not in the Chamber at the moment, both spoke passionately against opencast mining. It will be extremely interesting to see whether they have the courage of their conviction in following their voices into the Lobby.
§ Mr. Ashby
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what I said was that it is inevitable that the coal will have to be extracted, but that it must be extracted under strict conditions, taking full account of the environment? That is what I said, and that is what the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) failed to understand. The coal is there and has to come out some time, but only under the strictest of conditions.
§ Mr. Fisher
I am sad that the hon. Gentleman is now trying to talk his way out of what I took to be a speech that was extremely criticical of opencast mining.
The ground on which the hon. Gentleman and the Member for Broxtowe criticised opencast mining was the destruction that it caused to the rural environment and to beautiful places. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) and others talked about the destruction that is caused to communities. I wish to make a short contribution about the damage and destruction that opencast mining can do to urban areas in the middle of our cities.
At present, the opencast executive has an application to mine 650 acres right in the middle of the city of Stoke-on-Trent on a site called the China site, which is 233 surrounded by thousands of homes. It is right in the middle of one of the largest cities in this country. The devastation to that community and to the city will be great. That is why I am speaking against the extraordinary tenfold increase in the licences from 25,000 tonnes to 250,000 tonnes, and against opencasting in recreational and enclosed land. Those 650 acres comprise scrubland that has always been open land, right in the heart of our city. It is one of the few lungs in our city, but the opencast executive now proposes to take 3 million tonnes out of that site, which I repeat is in the middle of one of this country's largest cities.
The executive will work to a depth of over 300 ft. At present, there is no road access to the site. It is proposed to take 3 million tonnes of coal out of the site by road, right through the heart of Stoke-on-Trent. When the project was announced 12 months ago, the opencast executive said that it was willing to go ahead only because it had a willing partner in the local city council. When it leaked its plans, it met, not surprisingly, with total opposition from every resident of the city, from everyone who was interested in the environment and from both the district council and the county council. The executive could not find a single supporter for its plans in north Staffordshire.
In spite of the assurance that the director of the opencast executive gave to me, that he was going ahead only because he believed that he had a willing partner, the plans will proceed. The day after tomorrow, the executive will launch a slightly modified plan for only 165 acres over the next four years and a mere 1 million tonnes. It is interesting to note the relationship between that decision and clause 4.
There will be public consultation about the plans and, again, they will meet total opposition. I ask the Under-Secretary of State to make several points clear when he responds to the debate. Is it not significant when everyone in an urban community such as Stoke-on-Trent is completely opposed to a project? Should not those voices be taken into account? Should not it be taken into account that both local authorities reject the plans? Is the middle—not the edge—of one of the largest cities in the country a suitable site for extracting 3 million tonnes of coal?
If that were planned for the middle of London—for example, in Hyde Park—would the Government give permission to go ahead? If it were the middle of Manchester, Southampton, Bristol or Winchester, would the Government say that it was perfectly all right to extract 3 million tonnes of coal, although the site is surrounded by residential areas on three sides and by commercial, industrial and retail developments on one side? Is it reasonable to take 3 million tonnes of coal from under people's homes? It is proposed to go right up to the edge of people's gardens.
Opposition Members understand anxieties about the environment and about destroying the green and beautiful parts of the country. To work 3 million tonnes of coal right in the middle of a city in this day and age is equally appalling.
In Stoke-on-Trent we have paid our dues in coal. We have done enough. The whole city is built on a seam and is undermined. The major pit in Stoke-on-Trent, Hanley deep pit, had its main gates on the opposite side of the street to the main department store until the second world war.
234 For 200 years we have lived with the devastation that coal dust can cause in a community. Virtually every man in Stoke-on-Trent either has white dust on his lungs from pot banks or black dust from working down the pit. In the ward abutting the proposed opencast pit, with which the executive is determined to proceed, 50 per cent. of the men do not live to pick up their pension. We have paid our dues, and many people have paid with their lives. We are now being asked to have a 650-acre opencast mine in the middle of our city. That touches a raw nerve in the people of Stoke-on-Trent and they will not tolerate it.
The Under-Secretary should understand that the changes in clause 4 imply not only the destruction of the countryside and a complete abnegation of the Government's commitment to a green and pleasant environment, important though that is, but the destruction of urban environments. The Government talk about inner-city regeneration. Is it inner-city regeneration to mine 3 million tonnes of coal in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent? The Minister cannot mean that. He should examine the plans and reject them as surely as everyone in Stoke-on-Trent and both local authorities reject them. We have paid enough. That is the reality of the Bill. I hope that the Under-Secretary will understand that when he replies to the debate.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned north-east Derbyshire in connection with both the Pinnock site—which affects his constituency and mine—and Tom Swain, who formerly lived in Stanfree in his constituency. Stanfree is to be subject to an opencast development. It is a pity that Tom Swain did not live and had that unfortunate accident. He would have been solidly behind the fight to ensure that the opencast mining development does not go ahead.
The Pinnock site has been mentioned previously in the House. It was the subject of an Adjournment debate introduced by my hon. Friend and of a petition that I presented to the House from residents of Mastin Moor on 13 June 1988. Those people live next to the proposed Pinnock site. The usual arguments against opencast mining, such as the disruption that it causes and its dangers, were presented earlier in this debate and were listed in the petition. The petition was responded to by the Department of the Environment, but such petitions should also be examined carefully by the Department of Energy, because such opencast sites will be affected by the Bill.
Opencast developments face a problem, in that the conditions for such developments have already been weakened in a circular issued 18 months ago by the Department of the Environment in connection with planning permission. It has become increasingly difficult for local authorities that have objections to granting planning permission for opencast mining, to act within the rules to block applications. There have been attempts to ensure that planning permission is squeezed through at local level and does not go to appeal or a planning inquiry, which in many cases overturns the local planning decision.
In an earlier debate I mentioned the problems with opencasting that arise from the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill. In order to compete with foreign coal, the Coal Board and the private sector companies will promote a smaller number of deep mines and super pits at the expense of other pits. They will also go over to opencast mining developments in a cavalier manner.
235 That is particularly the case in the areas that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover represent. My constituency has an odd structure, the eastern side being similar to the constituency of Bolsover and the western side being more like the constituency of Derbyshire, West in its rural aspects and in its towns. It is divided politically, the western side being more strongly Conservative and the eastern side more strongly Labour.
However, the opencast issue is a great unifying force. The opencast executive has given me a huge map of the area showing how opencast mining will be developed. Those developments will be similar to those described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. Pits such as the Renishaw Park pit, in former industrial areas, have been closed, and sites such as the Pinnock site will, when it is developed, take coal that would otherwise have been taken by the Renishaw Park pit.
However, the western side of my constituency, with its agricultural land and commuter towns, also has fantastic potential for opencast mining. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was full of cutrills and drift mines. The map that I have shows not only the areas already mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover, but many others in both our constituencies, with fantastic potential for opencast development.
Dronfield in north-east Derbyshire is separated from Sheffield by a small strip of land known as the green belt, but that is all on coal, so it could soon become a black belt, with a host of transport problems and other forms of disruption for the communities in the area.
I could travel round my constituency from parish to parish showing the extent of the problems in the two regions that I have described. I will do everything that I can to stop opencast mining being developed by British Coal or its successors, or by private developers, ripping open my constituency and causing problems for north-east Derbyshire, such as those that existed in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby).
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Tony Baldry)
This has been a lengthy and interesting debate upon this group of amendments on opencast mining in which hon. Members on both side of the House have taken part. I want to make it clear to each and every one of them that the Government believe that opencast mining must strike a proper balance between national economic needs and environmental concerns. That is clearly paramount.
The House should recall that Britain's opencast industry is an important natural resource, producing coal of excellent quality, low in ash and chlorine. A substantial proportion is used for blending with deep-mined coal that would otherwise be unusable. Several major coal consumers have tight specifications that can be met only by opencast coal. Their business would otherwise go to other fuels or to imports.
Opencast coal is also one of the cheapest forms of energy available to Britain. Its costs are, typically, a third less than those of deep-mined coal, which means that it can compete with anything on the international market. That 236 ]source of energy is a real import beater and any Government who turned their back on it would be irresponsible.
However, I fully recognise that an environmental penalty is attached to opencast coal. That is why the Government introduced new planning guidelines on opencasting 18 months ago which spell out more fully and more tightly than ever before the environmental criteria that operators must meet. The mineral planning guidelines then issued spelled out more fully than ever before the environmental criteria, including restoration, that have to be met, and the Government have also insisted on full environmental impact assessments on all but the smallest sites.
The new guidance represents a proper and durable balance between the interests of energy supply and the environment. Tighter regulations also prevent time wasting in the planning process because environmentally unacceptable applications will not be put forward.
We should recall that in the case of small sites that have traditionally been worked under licence, the present 25,000 tonnes statutory limit on their size has led to a piecemeal working of opencast deposits. That small surface area has limited operators' ability to adopt imaginative schemes of restoration. The Bill lifts that obstacle and thereby reduces the period of disruption to the community and gives greater scope for even higher standards of restoration. I am glad to tell the House that local authority representatives in Scotland and England have welcomed the new, tighter guidance.
§ Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)
Does not the Minister recognise that when there are larger opencast sites there will be more transport on the road because transporters will be in use? The bigger the output, the more transport there will be on the roads.
§ Mr. Baldry
The fact that opencasting is subject to full planning procedures seems to have been missed out of the debate. It is important for the House to recall why we have been discussing this group of amendments on opencast mining. Doubts were expressed, initially by the Select Committee on Energy in its report in 1987, about British Coal's practice of licensing opencast sites of up to 35,000 tonnes, against the statutory limit of 25,000 tonnes or not greatly in excess of 25,000 tonnes. The Government have taken the first legislative opportunity since that report to remove any doubt by raising the limit to 250,000 tonnes. The Bill retains the flexibility for British Coal to issue licences for amounts not likely to exceed, or greatly to exceed, 250,000 tonnes. Such flexibility is needed because we can never be precise about how much coal is available in a particular site.
§ Mr. Baldry
It was because the Select Committee drew attention to the fact that there was uncertainty about how licences were being issued that we took the first legislative opportunity to clarify the position. I hope that that clarification will be much welcomed by the House.
Some hon. Members expressed concern about the issuing of consecutive licences. I would not expect British Coal to issue consecutive licences in the same deposit. Where a licence for up to 250,000 tonnes in a large deposit 237 of coal is being considered, I would expect the corporation to have regard, among other factors, to the likelihood and desirability, under current mineral planning policy, of the deposit being extracted as a whole under a single operation.
Each of the amendments in the group is interesting. However, for reasons which I hope I shall make clear, they are all superfluous and unnecessary. Amendment No. 4 was first raised in committee by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) when he asked my predecessor, now the Minister for Housing and Planning, for an assurance that approval for an opencast site would not be given if the site was covered by a pre-1840 private Enclosure Act. I cannot give such an assurance. Even if the condition relating to hedgerows, which the hon. Member for Westworth has discovered in some pre-1840 Acts, is to be found—it is far from clear that it is to be found—
§ Mr. Hardy
I have made the point—but the Minister appears to be disregarding it—that obviously, I have not studied all 4,000 private Enclosure Acts. However, I have studied, or had studied for me, a substantial proportion, dealing with various parts of the country. They all contain the clear, perpetual requirement that those hedgerows enclosing the fields and taking over the common land should be maintained for all time. The Government cannot have their cake and eat it. Either they respect the law or they do not. If the Government respect the law, the Minister cannot continue to maintain his evasiveness.
§ Mr. Baldry
Even if the Enclosure Acts contain conditions relating to hedgerows, it is questionable whether any persons other than adjoining landowners could ever enforce them. That matter is for the planning authority to take into account when issuing the planning consents that all opencast sites require. If the hon. Member for Wentworth contends that the Enclosure Acts continue to have legal force, amendment No. 4 is unnecessary. If they have no such effect, it would be improper to extend them in the way that the hon. Gentleman proposes. In either case, amendment No. 4 is superfluous.
As to amendment No. 5, I emphasise that proper and responsible restoration of opencast sites is of paramount importance and should be a fundamental consideration when appraising any proposal for opencast mining. Amendment No. 5, which requires applicants for exploration and production licences to make undertakings relating to site restoration is, again, unnecessary and superfluous. Such requirements are already dealt with in planning legislation. A local planning authority can, and generally does, attach restoration conditions to any planning consents. The authority also usually requires an applicant to provide an environmental impact assessment. The Government's current planning guidelines deal specifically with restoration standards.
As British Coal does not issue production licences unless prior planning consent has been obtained, no purpose would be served by including restoration requirements in the licence, and to do so could cause confusion if they were inconsistent with conditions stipulated by a local planning authority.
British Coal also requires licensees to deposit a bond to ensure the fulfilment of restoration requirements. The current practice, whereby British Coal issues a licence on condition that planning consent conditions are met, is perfectly satisfactory. It places planning issues where they 238 belong—with local planning authorities—and avoids the risk of confusion by requiring only one set of restoration conditions. It is a matter for local planning authorities to ensure compliance with any conditions that they attach to consents.
Amendment No. 1 requires applicants for production licences to deposit a bond with local authorities to cover estimated restoration costs. Such a provision is also unnecessary and superfluous because local authorities can effectively already require such a bond to be lodged with them as part of the planning consent process. As, again, British Coal will not consider an application unless the applicant for a production licence has prior planning consent, there is no need for any amendment.
In view of the proper balance that the Government have introduced in respect of opencasting, and having heard my explanation as to why the amendments are unnecessary and superfluous, I hope that the Opposition will feel able to withdraw them.
§ Mr. Dobson
I should have welcomed the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) to his new job earlier. I may add that he has proved to be a hit of a disappointment already. We had hoped that Baldrick would come up with a cunning plan, but he has failed us.
Our amendment would require any applicant for planning permission to place a bond with the local authority against the possibility of going broke or deliberately not restoring the land properly afterwards. The bond placed with British Coal does not do that, because British Coal has other financial relationships with those private opencast operators and may use the bond for those purposes, rather than to look after the local environment and neighbourhood. The Opposition think that amendment No. 1 is a sensible amendment and we do not understand why the Government cannot accept it. All the Conservative Back-Benchers who spoke thought that it was a good idea.
We think that it is a good idea and we want to put amendment No. 1 to the vote.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: No. 1, in page 2, line 27, at end insert—
'(1A) After subsection (2) of that section there shall be inserted—
(2AA) Applicants for a licence under subsection (2)(c) above shall undertake to deposit a bond, with the relevant local authority, sufficient to cover the costs of the restoration of the land affected by operations under that licence as estimated by that local authority.".'—[Mr. Dobson.]
§ Question put, That the amendment be made:—
§ The House divided Ayes 161, Noes 229.241
|Division No. 37]||[9.15|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Bradley, Keith|
|Allen, Graham||Bray, Dr Jeremy|
|Anderson, Donald||Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)|
|Armstrong, Hilary||Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)|
|Ashton, Joe||Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)|
|Barron, Kevin||Buchan, Norman|
|Battle, John||Buckley, George J.|
|Beckett, Margaret||Caborn, Richard|
|Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)||Callaghan, Jim|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)|
|Boyes, Roland||Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)|
|Campbell-Savours, D. N.||Leighton, Ron|
|Canavan, Dennis||Lestor, Joan (Eccles)|
|Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)||Lewis, Terry|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Litherland, Robert|
|Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Clay, Bob||Lofthouse, Geoffrey|
|Clelland, David||Loyden, Eddie|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||McAllion, John|
|Coleman, Donald||McAvoy, Thomas|
|Cook, Robin (Livingston)||McCartney, Ian|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Macdonald, Calum A.|
|Cousins, Jim||McFall, John|
|Cox, Tom||McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)|
|Cryer, Bob||McKelvey, William|
|Cummings, John||McLeish, Henry|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||McWilliam, John|
|Dalyell, Tam||Madden, Max|
|Darling, Alistair||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Marek, Dr John|
|Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)||Martlew, Eric|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'I)||Maxton, John|
|Dewar, Donald||Meale, Alan|
|Dixon, Don||Michael, Alun|
|Dobson, Frank||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Doran, Frank||Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)|
|Douglas, Dick||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Dunnachie, Jimmy||Morgan, Rhodri|
|Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)|
|Eadie, Alexander||Mowlam, Marjorie|
|Eastham, Ken||Mullin, Chris|
|Evans, John (St Helens N)||Murphy, Paul|
|Fatchett, Derek||Nellist, Dave|
|Fearn, Ronald||O'Brien, William|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||O'Neill, Martin|
|Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)||Pike, Peter L.|
|Fisher, Mark||Powell, Ray (Ogmore)|
|Flannery, Martin||Primarolo, Dawn|
|Flynn, Paul||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Foster, Derek||Redmond, Martin|
|Foulkes, George||Richardson, Jo|
|Fyfe, Maria||Robertson, George|
|Galloway, George||Rogers, Allan|
|Godman, Dr Norman A.||Rooker, Jeff|
|Gordon, Mildred||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Gould, Bryan||Rowlands, Ted|
|Graham, Thomas||Ruddock, Joan|
|Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)||Short, Clare|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||Skinner, Dennis|
|Grocott, Bruce||Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Hardy, Peter||Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)|
|Haynes, Frank||Spearing, Nigel|
|Hinchliffe, David||Steel, Rt Hon Sir David|
|Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall)||Steinberg, Gerry|
|Hood, Jimmy||Strang, Gavin|
|Howarth, George (Knowsley N)||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Howells, Geraint||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)||Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)|
|Hughes, John (Coventry NE)||Turner, Dennis|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Vaz, Keith|
|Hughes, Roy (Newport E)||Walley, Joan|
|Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)||Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)|
|Illsley, Eric||Williams, Rt Hon Alan|
|Ingram, Adam||Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)|
|Janner, Greville||Winnick, David|
|Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)||Wray, Jimmy|
|Jones, leuan (Ynys Môn)|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Lambie, David||Mrs. Llin Golding and|
|Lamond, James||Mr. Martyn Jones.|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)|
|Alexander, Richard||Ashby, David|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Atkins, Robert|
|Allason, Rupert||Atkinson, David|
|Amess, David||Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)|
|Amos, Alan||Baldry, Tony|
|Arbuthnot, James||Batiste, Spencer|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Hampson, Dr Keith|
|Beggs, Roy||Hanley, Jeremy|
|Bellingham, Henry||Hannam, John|
|Bendall, Vivian||Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)|
|Benyon, W.||Harris, David|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Hawkins, Christopher|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Hayward, Robert|
|Boswell, Tim||Heathcoat-Amory, David|
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia||Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)|
|Bowis, John||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Hind, Kenneth|
|Bright, Graham||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)||Holt, Richard|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Hordern, Sir Peter|
|Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)||Howard, Rt Hon Michael|
|Burns, Simon||Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)|
|Burt, Alistair||Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)|
|Butler, Chris||Hunter, Andrew|
|Butterfill, John||Irvine, Michael|
|Carlisle, John, (Luton N)||Jack, Michael|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Janman, Tim|
|Carrington, Matthew||Jessel, Toby|
|Carttiss, Michael||Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)|
|Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda||Jones, Robert B (Herts W)|
|Chapman, Sydney||Jopling, Rt Hon Michael|
|Chope, Christopher||Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine|
|Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)||Key, Robert|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Kilfedder, James|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)|
|Colvin, Michael||Kirkhope, Timothy|
|Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)||Knapman, Roger|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Knight, Greg (Derby North)|
|Couchman, James||Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)|
|Cran, James||Knowles, Michael|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Knox, David|
|Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)||Lang, Ian|
|Davis, David (Boothferry)||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Day, Stephen||Lee, John (Pendle)|
|Devlin, Tim||Lightbown, David|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Lilley, Peter|
|Dover, Den||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Dunn, Bob||Lord, Michael|
|Durant, Tony||Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas|
|Emery, Sir Peter||Macfarlane, Sir Neil|
|Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)||MacGregor, Rt Hon John|
|Evennett, David||MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)|
|Fallon, Michael||Maclean, David|
|Favell, Tony||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Fenner, Dame Peggy||McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael|
|Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey||Malins, Humfrey|
|Fishburn, John Dudley||Mans, Keith|
|Fookes, Dame Janet||Marshall, John (Hendon S)|
|Forman, Nigel||Marshall, Michael (Arundel)|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Martin, David (Portsmouth S)|
|Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S)||Maude, Hon Francis|
|Forth, Eric||Meyer, Sir Anthony|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman||Mills, Iain|
|Fox, Sir Marcus||Mitchell, Sir David|
|Franks, Cecil||Moate, Roger|
|Freeman, Roger||Monro, Sir Hector|
|French, Douglas||Montgomery, Sir Fergus|
|Fry, Peter||Moss, Malcolm|
|Gale, Roger||Moynihan, Hon Colin|
|Gardiner, George||Neale, Gerrard|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Neubert, Michael|
|Gill, Christopher||Norris, Steve|
|Glyn, Dr Sir Alan||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Goodlad, Alastair||Patnick, Irvine|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Raffan, Keith|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||Renton, Rt Hon Tim|
|Gow, Ian||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||Riddick, Graham|
|Grist, Ian||Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm|
|Ground, Patrick||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Hague, William||Rost, Peter|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Rowe, Andrew|
|Sackville, Hon Tom||Thurnham, Peter|
|Sayeed, Jonathan||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Shaw, David (Dover)||Tracey, Richard|
|Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)||Trippier, David|
|Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)||Walden, George|
|Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)||Walker, Bill (T'side North)|
|Shersby, Michael||Waller, Gary|
|Sims, Roger||Ward, John|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Speller, Tony||Warren, Kenneth|
|Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)||Watts, John|
|Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)||Wells, Bowen|
|Squire, Robin||Wheeler, Sir John|
|Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John||Whitney, Ray|
|Stern, Michael||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Stradling Thomas, Sir John||Wilshire, David|
|Sumberg, David||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Summerson, Hugo||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Taylor, Ian (Esher)||Wood, Timothy|
|Taylor, Rt Hon J. D. (S'ford)||Woodcock, Dr. Mike|
|Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)||Mr. John M. Taylor and|
|Thorne, Neil||Mr. Stephen Dorrell.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Mr. Barron
I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 40, at end insert—'(2A) After subsection (2) of that section there shall be inserted—( ) A licence under subsection (2)(a) above shall not be granted to
- (a)any person who, or company which, has been convicted of an offence relating to its colliery activities in the relevant period, or
- (b)any company in which the controlling interest is held by a person who, or company which, has been convicted of an offence relating to its colliery activities in the relevant period.( ) For the purposes of subsection (2B) above the 'relevant period' shall be defined as five years prior to the date of the application for a licence under subsection (2)(a) above, or the date upon which this Act received its Royal Assent, whichever shall be later.".'.
We are concerned about the lack of regard to safety and health accompanying the increase in the number of private mineworkers. It cannot be denied that the safety record of the private mining industry is appalling and would not be tolerated in most industries. On Second Reading and in Committee, we discussed the ratio between major reportable accidents, and fatal accidents, in the private sector and those in mines operated by British Coal.
In Committee last week, the Minister referred to a press statement issued on 8 January by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) about the number of underground private-sector mineworkers. In order to ensure that the statistics used were safe, my hon. Friend assumed that about 4,000 were employed, but the next day the then Under-Secretary of State said that he believed that the figure was about 1,700. That can be found in column 121 of the Official Report, Standing Committee A, 9 January 1990.
My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras received from the Secretary of State a written reply to a parliamentary question today in which figures were given from the British Coal Corporation's annual report for 1988–89 showing that only 1,524 people were working underground in the private licensed sector. In 242 other words, the record that we regarded as bad when we began to look at the statistics for the private sector is shown to be even worse than we thought.
The Government say that we exaggerate the concern that is felt and that coal mining is, by its nature, a dangerous job. That is so, and that is why we are seeking to ensure that safety standards are of the highest.
The amendment would prevent anyone who had been convicted under the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 from being granted a licence to mine for coal. That is not to ask for a great deal, for we are again seeking an assurance that safety standards will be paramount and that they will be considered as the first priority for everyone in the mining industry, be that British Coal or the Federation of Small Mines of Great Britain in the private sector. We have not been convinced that that priority exists. The utmost protection must be given to those who work in that sector of the industry.
Many questions about the Bill have been put to the Department, and we still await answers to them. For example, it appears that British Coal was not consulted before the changes were proposed. In a British Coal press release following the publication of the Bill, it was said that British Coal would be having discussions with the Government. Have those discussions taken place, and if so, what was the outcome?
We have asked whether the Department of Energy or any other Government Department has discussed the issue with the mines and quarries inspectorate, which has statutory responsibility for the upkeep of safety standards in British coal mines. I hope that, when responding to the debate on the amendment, the Secretary of State will answer our questions. Until now, we have received only assertions, which have gone no way to allaying our fears about safety and health in an expanded private licensed sector.
The mines and quarries inspectorate shares our fears. For that reason, in the summer of 1988, it initiated a meeting with the Federation of Small Mines and gave a damning indictment of the standards of safety in that sector of the industry. In a newspaper report dated 4 October 1988, Mr. Albert Davies, a deputy chief inspector of mines, was reported as having said in relation to that indictment of safety practices in that sector:Professional standards of management in licensed mines must improve. All too often the reports record very poor mechanical, electrical and mining standards. There is no excuse for these or the fact that managers often do not understand what proper standards should be.The principal district inspector of mines and quarries in the south-western district wrote to all licensed coal mine owners and managers in 1988 instructing them to improve safety standards.
Is it any wonder that we are concerned about the amount of regard that is given to safety in that sector when, in response to such criticism, the chairman of the Federation of Small Mines said on 3 October 1988:I think it would be an error to focus too much on safety.Does the Secretary of State take that view, or does he agree that those who operate in that sector must be proven to have safety as their first consideration?
In the last 10 years, the Government have allowed safety standards to fall and to become subordinate to cutting costs and increasing profit. In that period, there 243 have been nine convictions under the Mines and Quarries Act, at least two of which were the result of deaths in that sector.
It would be interesting to know how many of those nine prosecutions were mounted after an accident had occurred and how many, if any, were mounted after the mines and quarries inspectors had found something not up to standard. If, as I suspect, most, if not all, of those convictions occurred following an accident or a death, the Opposition's fears about that sector and whether we should be discussing its expansion are justified.
Incidentally, another written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras contained the information about the prosecutions over the past 10 years. In every one of those nine cases, the owners of the mines were found guilty as charged. The fines totalled more than £31,000. In one case, a fine of only £1,500 was imposed after a death occurred leading to a conviction under the Mines and Quarries Act 1954. It does not seem to me or my hon. Friends, whether or not they have worked in coal mining, that that would be much of a deterrent after the loss of a life after breaking the law. That is a paltry fine. We have been repeatedly told that raising the numbers that can work underground in private mines will make the pits safer, as there will be investment in modern technology.
Many Conservative Members, although sadly not Ministers, accept that the private sector seems to think that such investment will take place only if there is total deregulation. Is it not more to the point that the raising of the employment limit is a sop to those in the City and on the Conservative Back Benches who made it quite plain on Second Reading that they were pressing the Government for more deregulation and privatisation? It is just a taster of what they have in mind for the industry in future.
The former Under-Secretary of State told us—almost as his parting shot from the Department of Energy—in a press release from the Department of Energy that the new provisionsshould also provide opportunities for new employment through working remnant coal at closed pits".That seems a contradiction in terms, but given the fact that that statement was made in a press release from the Department of Energy, perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us tonight exactly what lay behind the comments in the press release which were not made on Second Reading nor in Committee when the Minister used some of the press release.
A statement was sent out to the press telling us that the Government are now talking aboutworking remnant coal at closed pits".Very few pits operated by British Coal would be accessible for private coal mine operators—most of them are too deep. The pits that have already closed have put that coal out of reach. It is a great loss to the coal industry and to the nation that those reserves have been sterilised, perhaps for good. Are we to assume that, in the few cases where it might be possible, the private mine operator will inherit the benefits of all the investments made by British Coal, or rather the British public, in sinking shafts and maintaining them over the years? What will happen if private operators take over mines that are running down production?
Will the Secretary of State tell us—I see that he is swapping notes with the new Under-Secretary of State—exactly what is meant by 150 people in clause 4? Does it mean that 150 people will be underground at a particular mine on a particular day? Does it mean that there will be 244 a limit on the number of people underground but no limit on the number of people who can be employed at a particular mine? As opposed to the present situation, when there may be 30 people at a mine, could there be 150 people at a mine on different shifts? It is important that we have answers to those questions, as it is not certain exactly what will happen.
The Secretary of State may be aware that, in Committee, we said that it was impossible to find out exactly how many people work in that sector of the industry—hence the three misleading statements about the total work force, or exactly how many people work in each individual coal mine. That seems wrong under the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908, which states that people who work in a coal mine should be registered.
Consequently, the Department should be able to answer questions similar to the question that my hon Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras put to the Secretary of State for Employment:if he will list the private licensed coal mines known to the mines and quarries inspectorate, giving the numbers employed below ground in each case.The reply was:Following is a list of private licensed mines held by Her Majesty's inspectorate. Figures for persons employed at individual mines are not readily available."—[Official Report, 15 January 1990; Vol. 165, c. 64.]
We argued in Committee that that would be a breach of coal-mining regulations under the 1908 Act. Given that the Secretary of State intends to expand by ten times the number of people who can work in these mines, what guarantee have we that the regulation will be complied with? We have no idea how many people will be working in the private mines.
We are not satisfied by the complacent attitude of Government spokesmen that everything will be all right, and that particular attention is not needed. It is abhorrent to us that a sector so damned by the mines and quarries inspectorate should be given freedom to employ more workers without prior evidence of a commitment to uphold safety standards.
That is why we believe that amendment No. 2 will not guide the Department of Energy for ever but that it is necessary now to protect lives and people's safety. The private licensed sector should be tightly regulated. It has a deplorable safety record. It is difficult for the mines inspectorate to keep it under control. Until we have the safeguards that are in the amendment, we shall oppose clause 4 and all its implications.
§ Mr. Allen McKay
I want to relate what my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) has said to health and safety and problems in small mines. I recall that on Second Reading the Minister said that the expansion of the number of people in small mines would take account of the use of modern machinery. That raises some questions.
The manager of a small mine does not need a manager's certificate; he can have a lesser certificate. If the number of people employed in small mines is to be expanded, will the person in charge of the mine need a manager's certificate? If so, will the person who is second in charge need a qualified under-manager's certificate? If a manager is responsible for a mine for 24 hours, even when he is not there, there has to be someone in charge who is fully qualified. If private mines are to have electrical and mechanical equipment such as is used in deep mines, will 245 there be an electrical engineer and a mechanical engineer in charge? Will there be a second in command to look after the electrical and mechanical equipment? Will those people he qualified under the Mines and Quarries Act 1954? Will the manager and the under-manager be qualified under that Act?
If the small mines sector is to expand, we must consider carefully the safety of the people who work in the mines. There must be a proper management structure. I should like answers to the questions that 1 have put.
§ Mr. Eadie
We may be reaching the fag-end of debates on the Bill, but this is an important one. Safety is of paramount importance in the mining industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) said that he had worked for private mine owners. I started in the pits as a boy of 14 in 1934, when the safety record of private mines was deplorable. Thousands of miners have been killed during this century, most during the period of private ownership. I remember working as a boy at the coal face, and I remember some of the things that were done in the interests of producing coal at a profit. We have heard much about producing coal at a profit, but many good men were killed at that time.
To some extent, the amendment is a test. This debate on safety will be nothing compared to the debate that we shall have on the Government's proposals to privatise the coal industry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said that sanctions must be placed on safety. The Minister may think that it is a sacrifice for private mine owners to have to comply with safety regulations, but the history of safety in the mining industry has been born from sacrifice. I am old enough to remember when we had to introduce sanctions on safety in the days of private enterprise. We made great personal sacrifices. If a man was killed in the pit, what sanctions were we able to apply? We decided that if that happened no one would work in the pit on that day.
My wages when I began working in the pit were 2s 9d a day. A man on day wages received 7s 6d a day. Those fortunate enough to work at the coal face earned nine or 10 bob a day. To lose a day's wages was a great personal sacrifice, but we owed that to our colleagues. We said, "If the private coal owners are not prepared to look after our safety, our only sanction is to harm their profits." No man worked on a day when a man was killed. Unfortunately, if we consider the history of the mining industry, we are talking about not one man but dozens being killed. I remember the Gresford disaster, when 200 men were killed.
One of the great achievements when the mines were nationalised was that we stopped that slaughter in the industry. We were also able to build up the independence of the mines and quarries inspectorate, which was respected by miners. They knew that it could apply certain sanctions and that safety would prevail.
The amendment tests the Government's sincerity. Do they want to see slaughter in the industry as more private mines open? The Minister shakes his head, but we shall test his sincerity. The amendment places sanctions on people who ignore regulations. They are not fit to become owners of these mines. This is the test. Incidentally, the Government should have a close look at deregulation, 246 about which I am sure that my hon. Friends will talk later. It will make it easier for private owners to operate mines in relation to the Mines and Quarries Act 1954.
I feel emotional about this subject, because some of my family have been killed in the pits. If I do nothing else tonight, I owe it to them to make this contribution to the debate.
§ Mr. Ronnie Campbell
It has been well documented on Second Reading and in Committee that the private mining sector has an appalling record on safety. I said in Committee, when we were debating raising the manpower in private pits from 30 to 150, that I foresaw disaster occurring somewhere in the mines because of the attitude of some private mine owners. I gave examples of many incidents that were described by mineworkers. Some were horror stories that would make one's hair stand on end if one were a miner working in the British coal industry.
I want to illustrate why private mine owners should be severely watched when they open a mine. I want to quote from the case of a 51-year-old fellow who was killed at the Robin Rock pit in Northumberland. It emerged at the inquest thatelectrical equipment at this mine had been poorly maintained".
Danger signs had apparently been seen for three weeks beforehand. An electrical junction box had caught fire, and sparks and smoke had come from it. Fortunately, the men managed to get out of the pit in time. Any fire in a mine is a reportable offence to the mines and quarries inspectorate, but on that occasion, the mine owners did not inform the inspectorate. Apparently they thought that as everyone had got out of the pit, they need not report it.
The same thing happened three or four weeks later. The box caught fire and smoke came out. Unfortunately, one of the old fellows did not make it and was suffocated by the smoke. The three brothers who owned the mine were prosecuted, and each was fined £1,000. When they were asked at the inquest whether they had an electrical engineer, they replied, "No." When they were asked whether they had an electrician, they said that they did. When they were asked what his qualifications were, they said that he had served his time at another colliery as a mining apprentice.
We have had a great debate. Safety in the mines is an emotive subject and I am sure that we shall return to it. With my 20-odd years' experience of the mines, 1 ask the Minister seriously to consider new laws for the private mines. He—not the Opposition, who hope to win in the Lobby—is increasing the private mines. The responsibility will lie on the Minister's head. I shall never let him forget what I have said when there is a disaster in the private mines after the level of manpower is raised from 30 to 150.
§ Mr. Hardy
Given the position adopted by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), I should be foolish to seek to make a long speech. Nevertheless, it is appropriate that I should remind the House that I am sponsored by the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, the trade union that represents those employed underground in the British coal mining industry, who have a statutory responsibility for safety. Let us leave aside for a moment all questions of politics and dogma. NACODS is deeply concerned about the extension of private mining. It is the considered view of the NACODS leadership—people who have a great deal of 247 experience—that the Government's proposals will lead to more people being killed and maimed. That must surely be a serious matter.
I know that we shall not persuade the Government to withdraw the proposal, but although the Minister has only just taken office, he is aware of the points that we have made concerning the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908—a subject to which I referred twice in Committee. That Act is not being enforced. The Government have already had several weeks in which to ensure that the Act was being enforced. I want an assurance from the Minister that no private mine will be allowed to operate under present arrangements or in future unless that regulation has been put into practice. This is another example of the law being observed when the Government want it to be observed because it suits them. In this case, common sense and the need to save limbs and lives make it essential to ensure that the provision is put into effect without further delay.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
I hope to be able to persuade the Minister to accept this modest amendment. I certainly deem it to be modest; I should have liked it to go much further.
I realise that Conservative Members may feel that people of my generation—my hon. Friends the Members for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) and for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes)—speak with some bias on these matters because of our experience in the privatised coal industry. Conservative Members, who have never had such experience, are probably justified in questioning our views.
I wish to outline briefly my own experience both of present-day technology in the mining industry and of licensed mines in Britain. In my experience, the American coalfield, which as we all know is privatised, does not bear comparison with the British coalfield and its industry. I can say to the House with all sincerity that the American coal mines that I have been down are the most unsafe that I have ever visited in all my experience—since the age of 14—in the mining industry.
I have been down American mines—with ladies working in them, incidentally—where, on reaching the end of a coal face, my party has had to be brought back by what we in this country call a deputy. The normal system in this country is to go through one roadway on to the coalface and then through another roadway at the end of the coalface, which is called the return. In America we got to the end of the face and had to turn back.
Conservative Members who accompanied us on that trip did not take exception, because they did not realise what was happening. We had to be brought back the length of the face because there was no other way out. There was only one way in and out. That is privatisation: the firm was saving the expense of a second roadway. I have never before seen such unsafe conditions. It was the only time that I have ever experienced fear in a coal mine.
The conditions in private mines in this country were drawn to the attention of the House by the 28 January 1987 report of the Select Committee on Energy. Paragraph 171 states:Other operators in the industry as well as BC have a responsibility to safeguard their workers' safety. Figures given to us show that 1 in 100 workers in the private deep mines suffered a fatal or major injury in 1985–86, compared with 1 in 187 in BC's pits.248 That accident rate is a fact. The accident rate in private mines in this country was nearly double the rate in British Coal's mines. Incidentally, only 40 per cent. of American mines are unionised, and only those mines record accidents. Their accident figures are 2.5 per cent. to 4 per cent. higher than British Coal's.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
I challenge any hon. Member to produce accident figures relating to any country that operates a private mining sector and compare them with British Coal's figures. I should be very surprised if an hon. Member can do that.
I well remember on 19 December 1939 going down a big hole in the ground in Featherstone in West Yorkshire. I was a 14-year-old boy at the time. I saw conditions in those days that were not fit for people to work in. I saw circumstances in which men were criminally killed because there were no roof supports for protection. Within three months of my going down that mine, driving a pony, I arrived at the coal face one morning and saw a man lying dead because he had had nothing to support himself with. The cemetery at Featherstone in Yorkshire is full of such men.
Only in recent times, Mr. Kenneth Moses, who was a technical director of British Coal and, I suppose, can be recognised as one of the senior mining engineers in the country, was questioned by the Select Committee. I asked:How do you explain the accident rate in the private pits in this country compared with British Coal?Mr. Moses replied:Well, because we are using two entirely different technologies.He can say that again.The private pits are using the technology we were using in 1947, we are using highly mechanised modernised technology, and the way in which we have reduced accidents is, in fact, by the application of mining engineering technology.Mr. Moses conceded that the high accident rate in private mines in this country was because we were mining coal with pre-1947 technology.
It is one thing to organise and control a mine with 30 men with pre-1947 technology, but it is another thing to expand to 150 men without that technology. Small mines will not be able to maintain British Coal's safety record, because the capital development which previously enabled British Coal to supply mechanisation for coal faces and so on will not exist. The Bill, which extends the number of men in private mines, will, as sure as night follows day, create a situation in which men in the mines will be in much more danger than their British Coal counterparts.
One can say, "Well, they are protected by the inspectorate." It is true that the inspectorate visits the mines and that the mine owners must carry out the inspector's instructions. However, I remind the Secretary of State and the House that it is the self-same inspectorate that is inspecting the private mines now that is inspecting British Coal mines, yet the accident record in private mines has nearly doubled. It is not an argument for being protected by the inspectorate.
249 I hope that these arguments and the personal experiences that have been put to the Secretary of State tonight will lead him to consider—and, I hope, concede—this modest amendment.
§ Mr. Wakeham
It has been a short and important debate. I had been, and am, going to quote exactly the same remarks that were made in the Select Committee report by Ken Moses, as were quoted by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), but perhaps towards the end of the debate we were nearer to getting a better understanding of the problems. Of course I understand the sincerity, the feelings and the passions that are raised by safety questions and by history. I hope that hon. Members will hear what I have to say, which I claim modestly to be stated with as much sincerity as that with which they made their remarks.
The Opposition's position on the licensing of mines seems to remain the same as that stated in their comments that were attached to the end of the Select Committee on Energy's 1986–87 report into the coal industry. They believe that the manpower limit should remain at the levels set in 1946. In other words, they wish to condemn private sector mineworkers to the working methods and the safety levels of the 1940s. On the other hand, we believe that the most effective way of making mines safer for underground workers is through mechanisation.
This is borne out by British Coal's own experience. Mr. Ken Moses, British Coal's technology director, pointed out recently when giving evidence to the Select Committee on Energy—in exactly the same piece of evidence quoted by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford—that the private pits are using the technology of 1947 and that British Coal is not. He said that British Coal has improved the accident recordby the application of mining engineering technology.
I believe that to be absolutely right. It is the reason for our wish to increase manning levels in the licensed sector. I have no doubt that the out-of-date working practices that licensed mines are currently forced to use because of their size prevents them from improving their safety standards. I accept that the accident rate at licensed mines does not compare favourably with that at British Coal's mines, but that is because their mining practices have not kept pace with technological developments. [Interruption] We heard what Opposition Members had to say, so I think that I should be allowed to speak.
The reports of the mines and quarries inspectorate on accidents in the licensed mines sector suggest that many of the fatal accidents reported would not have happened had modern mechanised group support and conveyance systems been employed. The investment required for that can be generated only by mines that are larger than the existing ones. The need to increase productivity by multi-shift working or by working two faces means that more men are needed, which means more mining jobs—jobs in areas where they are needed.
Of course we wish to see improvements in licensed mine safety. We believe that the improvement in the manpower limit will enable modern, mechanised and, above all, safer pits to be developed in the licensed sector.
The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and others have raised with me the question of the numbers of men employed in licensed mines. I shall do my best to give an answer, but it is not the clearest answer that I have ever given in my life. However, I repeat that I shall do my best.
250 The hon. Member for Wentworth asked about the exact number of people employed in licensed mines and related that to the provisions of the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908. I should make it clear that the 1908 Act required that a register be kept of persons going below ground and returning to the surface, so that a record is kept of the hours spent below ground. It may be a useful guide to the numbers of persons employed in the mine, but it is not a register of persons employed; nor has it ever been that.
As I have said, the hon. Member for Wentworth was also most concerned to have a cut-and-dried answer to his question about the numbers of people employed in licensed mines. I am sorry that I cannot give a precise answer to that question. The work force in licensed mines changes frequently. Unlike for British Coal's mines, there is no central organisation to collect figures.
Not all licensed mines belong to the Federation of Small Mines of Great Britain. Her Majesty's mines and quarries inspectorate makes inquiries to ensure that the numbers employed at the mine and the qualifications of officials are consistent with the requirements of the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 and associated legislation. The inspectorate does not keep detailed records of the numbers employed at each mine.
As the licensing authority for private coal mines, British Coal must satisfy itself that the mining plans submitted with a licensed application could be undertaken by 30 men or fewer. Once the mine is in operation, it is for the owner to ensure that he complies with the requirements of the licence. British Coal will have to consider carefully whether a licence should be revoked at a pit where it is discovered that there has been an infringement of the licensing agreement.
The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) asked about the qualifications of managers. I can answer his question simply. The basic principle is that the management qualifications required for a given size of mine are the same for a licensed mine as for a British Coal mine. A manager would require a first-class certificate at a mine employing more than 30 people.
§ Mr. Allen McKay
I accept that, but is the Secretary of State saying that there will be 150 men per shift over three shifts? If there are 150 men per shift, a structure of under-managers will be needed too.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I shall not go further than what. I said, because that is what I was advised. The same regulations, under the same Act, will apply whether the mine is a private licensed mine or a British Coal mine.
The amendment was not referred to very often in the debate. I recognise the importance of the issues with which it deals. I recognise that mine safety must be paramount. I agree that mines should be run by those fitted to do so. It would be inappropriate to use the Bill to impose mandatory sanctions on owners for offences not directly related to its subject. The safety regulations covering the mining industry are part of the heath and safety at work legislation.
The amendment does not distinguish sufficiently between serious and trivial offences. It would be iniquitous to put a company out of business for committing a relatively minor misdemeanour. I recognise the force of the argument behind the amendments. The most effective and proper way to deal with the issue is through the licensing process, not legislation. That is precisely how we deal with 251 the problem in licensing North Sea oil operations, where safety is equally vital. The statutes covering those licences do not contain requirements similar to those in the amendment, but applicants' safety records are taken into account in the licensing process.
I shall draw the attention of British Coal to what has been said and ask it to take into account any criminal record of the mine manager or owner in any application for a licence or renewal of a licence. I cannot accept the amendment, although I understand the reasons for it.
§ Mr. Barron
I am dissatisfied with the Secretary of State's explanation, as I am sure many of my hon. Friends are. He argued that mechanisation was the answer. No Opposition Member or anyone in the mining industry would disagree with that. He talked about running two faces of a coal mine with a limit of 150. But when Marine colliery in south Wales was mothballed, Mr. Crispian Hotson of Ryan International said that 150 would not be adequate to run such a colliery with fewer than three coal faces.
The Minister's argument does not stand up. At no stage since the introduction of the Bill have the Government ever spoken to British Coal, which issues the licences and should police that sector, about the implications of clause 4 and raising the figure from 30 to 150.
We still do not know how many people work in the private licensed sector. We have had three different figures in the three weeks that the Bill has been considered in Committee. The Minister says that the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908, which we and everybody else, including the inspectors, believed gave the number, as a useful guide. But that is not good enough when people are working in the same environment that existed pre-1947, when three or four coal miners were killed every day in British coal mines. We cannot accept an extension of that.
At least 18 counties in Britain, sadly not all with Labour Members of Parliament, have private mines or plan to have private mines. Yet Conservative Members sit in silence when we are debating a measure which will increase fivefold the number of people who can work in private mines.
We do not accept all the Minister's arguments about mechanisation, because that is limited by the number in the Bill. I am not arguing for more. We do not accept that there is any regulation at present of the licensed mine sector; hence the present number of deaths and injuries. Over the past 10 years, there have been nine prosecutions under the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 in the private sector and not one in British Coal mines during the past 10 years. Therefore, the people who work in the private sector now, and who will do so in future, need the protection that the amendment gives, and we shall put it to the vote.
§ Question put, That the amendment be made:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 149, Noes 214.254
|Division No. 38]||[10.17 pm|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Barron, Kevin|
|Allen, Graham||Battle, John|
|Anderson, Donald||Beckett, Margaret|
|Armstrong, Hilary||Beggs, Roy|
|Ashton, Joe||Beith, A. J.|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Jones, leuan (Ynys Môn)|
|Boateng, Paul||Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)|
|Boyes, Roland||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Bradley, Keith||Lambie, David|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Lamond, James|
|Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)||Leighton, Ron|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Lestor, Joan (Eccles)|
|Buchan, Norman||Lewis, Terry|
|Buckley, George J.||Lofthouse, Geoffrey.|
|Caborn, Richard||Loyden, Eddie|
|Callaghan, Jim||McAllion, John|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||McAvoy, Thomas|
|Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)||McCartney, Ian|
|Canavan, Dennis||McFall, John|
|Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)||McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||McKelvey, William|
|Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)||McLeish, Henry|
|Clay, Bob||McWilliam, John|
|Clelland, David||Madden, Max|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Coleman, Donald||Marek, Dr John|
|Cook, Robin (Livingston)||Martlew, Eric|
|Cousins, Jim||Maxton, John|
|Cryer, Bob||Meale, Alan|
|Cummings, John||Michael, Alun|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Dalyell, Tam||Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)|
|Darling, Alistair||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Morgan, Rhodri|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)|
|Dewar, Donald||Mowlam, Marjorie|
|Dixon, Don||Mullin, Chris|
|Dobson, Frank||Murphy, Paul|
|Doran, Frank||Nellist, Dave|
|Douglas, Dick||O'Brien, William|
|Dunnachie, Jimmy||O'Neill, Martin|
|Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth||Pike, Peter L.|
|Eadie, Alexander||Powell, Ray (Ogmore)|
|Fatchett, Derek||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Fearn, Ronald||Radice, Giles|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Redmond, Martin|
|Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)||Robertson, George|
|Fisher, Mark||Rogers, Allan|
|Flannery, Martin||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Flynn, Paul||Rowlands, Ted|
|Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S)||Ruddock, Joan|
|Foster, Derek||Short, Clare|
|Foulkes, George||Skinner, Dennis|
|Fyfe, Maria||Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Galloway, George||Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)|
|Godman, Dr Norman A.||Spearing, Nigel|
|Gordon, Mildred||Steel, Rt Hon Sir David|
|Gould, Bryan||Strang, Gavin|
|Graham, Thomas||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)||Taylor, Rt Hon J. D. (S'ford)|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Hardy, Peter||Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)|
|Haynes, Frank||Walley, Joan|
|Hinchliffe, David||Warden, Gareth (Gower)|
|Hood, Jimmy||Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)|
|Howells, Geraint||Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)|
|Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)||Williams, Rt Hon Alan|
|Hoyle, Doug||Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)|
|Hughes, John (Coventry NE)||Winnick, David|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Wray, Jimmy|
|Hughes, Roy (Newport E)|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Illsley, Eric||Mrs. Llin Golding and|
|Ingram, Adam||Mr. Ken Eastham.|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)|
|Alexander, Richard||Ashby, David|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Aspinwall, Jack|
|Allason, Rupert||Atkins, Robert|
|Amess, David||Atkinson, David|
|Amos, Alan||Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)|
|Arbuthnot, James||Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)|
|Baldry, Tony||Fenner, Dame Peggy|
|Batiste, Spencer||Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Fishburn, John Dudley|
|Bendall, Vivian||Fookes, Dame Janet|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Forman, Nigel|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Forth, Eric|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman|
|Boswell, Tim||Fox, Sir Marcus|
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia||Franks, Cecil|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Freeman, Roger|
|Bowis, John||French, Douglas|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Fry, Peter|
|Brazier, Julian||Gale, Roger|
|Bright, Graham||Garel-Jones, Tristan|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)||Gill, Christopher|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Glyn, Dr Sir Alan|
|Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)||Goodhart, Sir Philip|
|Budgen, Nicholas||Goodlad, Alastair|
|Burns, Simon||Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles|
|Burt, Alistair||Gorman, Mrs Teresa|
|Butler, Chris||Gow, Ian|
|Butterfill, John||Greenway, John (Ryedale)|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Gregory, Conal|
|Carrington, Matthew||Grist, Ian|
|Carttiss, Michael||Ground, Patrick|
|Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda||Hague, William|
|Chapman, Sydney||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Chope, Christopher||Hampson, Dr Keith|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Hanley, Jeremy|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Hannam, John|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')|
|Colvin, Michael||Harris, David|
|Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)||Hawkins, Christopher|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Hayes, Jerry|
|Couchman, James||Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney|
|Cran, James||Hayward, Robert|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Heathcoat-Amory, David|
|Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)||Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael|
|Davis, David (Boothferry)||Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)|
|Day, Stephen||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.|
|Devlin, Tim||Hind, Kenneth|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Hordern, Sir Peter|
|Dover, Den||Howard, Rt Hon Michael|
|Dunn, Bob||Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)|
|Durant, Tony||Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)|
|Emery, Sir Peter||Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)|
|Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)||Hunter, Andrew|
|Evennett, David||Irvine, Michael|
|Fallon, Michael||Jack, Michael|
|Favell, Tony||Janman, Tim|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')|
|Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)|
|Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Key, Robert||Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)|
|Kilfedder, James||Shersby, Michael|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)||Sims, Roger|
|King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)||Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Speller, Tony|
|Knapman, Roger||Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)||Squire, Robin|
|Knowles, Michael||Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Knox, David||Steen, Anthony|
|Lang, Ian||Stern, Michael|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)|
|Lee, John (Pendle)||Stradling Thomas, Sir John|
|Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)||Summerson, Hugo|
|Lightbown, David||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Lilley, Peter||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Lord, Michael||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|MacGregor, Rt Hon John||Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)|
|MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Thorne, Neil|
|McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael||Thornton, Malcolm|
|Malins, Humfrey||Thurnham, Peter|
|Mans, Keith||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Marshall, John (Hendon S)||Trippier, David|
|Marshall, Michael (Arundel)||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Martin, David (Portsmouth S)||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Maude, Hon Francis||Walden, George|
|Meyer, Sir Anthony||Walker, Bill (T'side North)|
|Mills, Iain||Waller, Gary|
|Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)||Ward, John|
|Mitchell, Sir David||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Moate, Roger||Warren, Kenneth|
|Monro, Sir Hector||Watts, John|
|Moss, Malcolm||Wells, Bowen|
|Norris, Steve||Wheeler, Sir John|
|Oppenheim, Phillip||Whitney, Ray|
|Patnick, Irvine||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Renton, Rt Hon Tim||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Rhodes James, Robert||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Riddick, Graham||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Roe, Mrs Marion||Wood, Timothy|
|Rost, Peter||Woodcock, Dr. Mike|
|Rowe, Andrew||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|Sackville, Hon Tom|
|Sayeed, Jonathan||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Shaw, David (Dover)||Mr. John M. Taylor and|
|Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)||Mr. Greg Knight.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.255 10.30 pm
§ Mr. Wakeham
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I shall be brief, as I do not intend to deal with the detail of the Bill, other than to note that there has been a general welcome for the proposed capital reconstruction of British Coal. We had good debates in Committee on the detailed clauses and, thanks to the Opposition, we have had three good debates today on the issues that concern them—subsidence, opencast mining and licensed mines.
The Bill, together with the power stations' contracts for large tonnages over the next three years, gives British Coal an opportunity to build on the success that it has achieved over the past three years. Against that background, I have asked it to carry out a fundamental review of its business prospects, taking into account the prices achievable by each coalfield and the productivity improvements achievable by each colliery. As I emphasised on Second Reading, continuing strong productivity gains are essential if those opportunities are to be realised. The Bill provides further Government support for British Coal's restructuring programme.
The core of the Bill, is how to deal with the deficiency in British Coal's accounts—which will probably be more than £5 billion and could range up to another £2 billion. I do not claim that our deficiency grant is simply an act of generosity; it is essential if British Coal is to be re-established as a viable business. By valuing each colliery on the basis of its future earnings potential, the industry can establish more clearly than ever before where its future lies. Ultimately the size of the industry will depend upon the efforts of management and men together to maintain the trend of productivity growth and cost reduction.
As I said on Second Reading, given all that, I am confident that the capital reconstruction will provide the industry with the means to compete in the market place of the future, and I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Mr. Dobson
I, too, will be brief. On publication of the Bill, and again on Second Reading, we welcomed the Government's proposal in effect to write off the debts of British Coal so that the industry could compete and run its business properly. However, we are suspicious that this write-off is the precursor to the ultimate sell-off of British Coal, which would harm those who work in the British coal industry and the people of Britain in general.
We also welcome the increased provision for redundancy payments, but we regret that the contract that has recently been negotiated—if that is the right word—between British Coal and the electricity generating companies will involve further losses in coal burn, which will inevitably lead to redundancies for which these payments will be necessary.
We remain fundamentally opposed to the proposal for a fivefold increase in the number of people allowed to work below ground in private pits. In terms of safety, private pits are a disgrace. They are four to five times more dangerous than the British Coal collieries. It is preposterous for the Government to launch into that fivefold increase without any serious consultation with any of the people or bodies concerned with the safety of mines.
The National Association of Colliery Managers and the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers are utterly opposed to the proposal, as is the 256 National Union of Mineworkers. Even if the Government insist on the increase, because of the known poor safety record of private mines there should be a parallel development and stiffening of the safety provisions covering private mines. If they do not work for 30 people, they certainly will not work for 150.
We have presented proposals to improve safety provision, and the Government have rejected them. I should have thought that a Government who presided at the time of the King's Cross, Piper Alpha and Herald of Free Enterprise disasters, as well as innumerable others, would at least put safety first in the mining industry, but it appears that safety is not one of their priorities. I sincerely hope that Ministers will not be coming to the House within a few months to say, "We got it wrong: if we had taken a bit of notice of people who knew what they were talking about, this disaster would not have come about." Opposition Members do not look for such disasters, but we do fear them.
The Government also propose a tenfold increase in the size of private opencast workings. The new Minister's preposterous justification for that proposal was uncertainty about whether it was lawful for British Coal—blatantly,deliberately and with the agreement of the Department of Energy—to exceed the present limit of 25,000 tonnes and increase production to as much as 35,000 or 40,000 tonnes. To avoid the problem of a marginal increase over what was set down in the statute, he proposed an increase to 250,000 tonnes.
Although, for the sake of argument, we accepted that barmy proposition, we demanded parallel protection for the communities and the environment in areas where opencasting was already in progress and was likely to continue. We have not been assured of such protection; consequently, operators of ragshop, ruinous, rotten, awful opencast workings will be able to do so on 10 times the present scale.
We remain disappointed—and we are sure that the coalfield communities will be at least as disappointed as we are—that the Government have not taken the opportunity to improve the arrangements for compensation for mining subsidence. I understand that the Press Association has put it out on the tapes that the Secretary of State announced great improvements today, and said that all sorts of wondrous things would be done. No doubt all credit is due to the press officer sitting in the Box, but the PA seems to have omitted the fact that almost all the proposals concerned were put to the Government nearly six years ago, and the Government have done nothing about them. We feel that, if the Government are not prepared to introduce provisions to improve subsidence compensation when the House of Lords debates the Bill, they should find time to introduce such provisions in some other part of the threadbare legislative programme that they intend to push through this year.
For all those reasons, we are still opposed to the Bill as it stands. However, as it will provide the coal industry with substantial sums that are very necessary, and as we have already registered our opposition to the private mine proposals on Second Reading, we shall not vote against Third Reading.
§ Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)
As my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said, the Bill provides substantial sums of money for British Coal.
I wish to highlight a scandalous situation in my constituency, which used to be the heart of the anthracite coalfield. There is one drift mine, Carway Fawr, which, though mothballed, is almost ready to mine. It is being maintained by British Coal and has not been opened. I understand that £330 million has been spent on it.
I discovered a few days ago that some of the heavy electrical equipment in that mine has been removed to another mine. I appreciate the reasons for that, but there is fear in my constituency lest more heavy equipment is taken out. Once that happens, that mine will never re-open.
There is a shortage of anthracite in Britain, especially of good quality anthracite. Imports are coming in from China, and last week there were rumours of imports coming here from Vietnam. That imported coal is not cheap and the quality is not very good. Those imports are coming here because of a desperate shortage of anthracite, yet British Coal is sitting on this mine, which could employ 600 people and produce first-class, top quality anthracite for the British market. That is scandalous.
In his discussions with British Coal about the additional money that it will receive under the Bill—we welcome that—I hope that the Secretary of State will raise the anthracite issue again and ask British Coal to make a decision. Will it, or will it not, open this mine? If it does not, I shall regard it as my duty to have the matter investigated by the Public Accounts Committee or the Audit Commission, to find out why £30 million was spent and wasted. I hope that that will not be necessary. The coal and the jobs are needed. I urge the Secretary of State to intervene.
§ Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)
Like other hon. Members, I welcome the Government's commitment to writing off the debt of British Coal as firm evidence of the Government's continuing and long-standing support for the coal industry and for putting it on to a firm and viable footing.
As for the remainder of the Bill—affecting British Coal and the private sector—I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware that for the communities affected, environmental issues are of the greatest importance. One of the most important measures that the Government undertook was to take planning issues away from the Department of Energy and to put them into the normal planning procedures under the Department of the Environment.
I listened with interest to the comments of the Under-Secretary when he said clearly and categorically that nothing in the Bill would derogate from normal planning procedures or would remove existing protections from communities faced with planning applications for opencast, drift or deep mines. On the basis of those clear, categoric and unequivocal assurances, I welcome the Bill.
§ Mr. Malcolm Bruce
The Bill is necessary—in some cases regrettably necessary—because British Coal needs a major financial injection. That is why my hon. Friends and I voted for the Bill on Second Reading and why we support it tonight. But certain issues which arose during the passage of the measure remain unresolved, and I fear that we shall have to return to some of those, probably in further legislation.
The two main points that have been debated are the increase in the numbers employed in private mines and the substantial increase in opencast mining. I remain convinced that we need firmer guidelines and a much clearer policy on the issue of opencast if we are to reassure communities affected by it not only that they will get the restoration that they need but that they will receive the sort of compensation that is justified for the devastating effect of a much bigger expansion of opencast mining, and we shall need new environmental practices to minimise that impact.
I hear the Labour party's clear opposition to the increase in the licensing of private pits from 30 miners to 150, but given that it will happen, there are causes for concern, in that who will be licensed will continue to be entirely a matter for British Coal and the criteria for licensing them will also remain a matter for British Coal.
The right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) made a plea on behalf of his constituency for a working that has been mothballed, which British Coal can choose to leave mothballed and about which nobody else can do anything. In Committee I raised the case of Betteshanger, which has been closed, and Monktonhall, which has been mothballed, and there may be other examples.
When resisting my amendments suggesting that the transfer of licensing from British Coal to the Department of Energy was the way forward, the Minister hinted—in Committee and to some extent informally—that such a step might be taken at a later date. For many of those enterprises, that later date may come too late and the opportunities, reserves, pits and jobs will be lost for ever.
I remain dissatisfied that a genuine attempt to ensure that the issue was addressed was not just defeated in Committee—as was perhaps predictable—by 21 votes to one, but did not secure a recognition from the Government that, in the changing climate that they are creating, British Coal cannot be trusted to be the sole custodian of the nation's coal assets and the sole determiner of licensing conditions and applications and which pits should be closed, which pits should be mothballed and which pits should be operated.
I predict that, in future, communities will tell hon. Members that they are dissatisfied with the fact that their potential is being obstructed by British Coal and that the law does not allow any way around that, and not even a right of appeal to the Secretary of State. I hope that the Government will take those points seriously, because I am sure that they will reappear again and again.
§ Dr. Woodcock
In general, the Bill is to be welcomed, but with reservations. Many hon. Members have expressed their concerns about subsidence, and we welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about that as a significant move forward.
259 Some of us also have reservations about private mining operations, licensing and royalties. I recently asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in a written question whether he would review the royalty paid by the private mine operators. My right hon. Friend replied:Royalties are a matter for the British Coal Corporation, as owner and licensee of coal reserves."—[Official Report, 20 December 1989; Vol. 164, c. 307.]:Royalties should not be a matter for British Coal, and it should no longer own the coal reserves. We hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will do something about that in the not-too-distant future.
I remind my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the coal industry does not simply concern British Coal employees and private mining operators. Many other people are involved in the industry, including wholesalers, importers, exporters, producers of smokeless fuel, coal merchants and many others. Many of those people are concerned about some of the practices of British Coal that are allowed under the present law. They are particularly concerned about back-door nationalisation and anticompetitive practices.
I want my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to bear those points in mind. Ultimately, I want to see the privatisation of the state sector of British Coal and not the nationalisation of what remains of its private sector. I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear that in mind when he considers other legislation.
§ Mr. Michael Welsh (Doncaster, North)
I will be brief and refer to two important issues in clause 4. Under that clause, the manpower in a private mine can be increased from 30 to 150. Clause 4 states:to work below ground there is at no time likely to exceed, or greatly to exceed, 150".An increase of 200 may be covered by the term "or greatly". The Bill would provide for such an increase unless the Secretary of State gives a different undertaking. The increase will be 150 only if the Secretary of State gives that undertaking. At the moment, that is not clear from the Bill.
I do not believe that the private mine operators will be able to use deep mines with 150 people below ground. However, is the Secretary of State aware that the miners' rescue team is run by the Coal Board? We can all hope that we never see another explosion in a mine, but they can occur. The Coal Board rescue teams will have to go underground if such an explosion occurs, because that is their job and they are a brave set of individuals. However, I cannot see why they should have to do that. The private mines are there to make a profit and the nationalised industry should not pay for the rescue teams. At the moment, equity does not prevail in that situation.
On deep mining, especially in seams like the Barnsley seams, the only reason we have had no explosions is because we have been able to seal them solidly by stowing. It costs a lot of money and manpower. If people risk deep mining without stowing, as sure as God made little apples, a mine will go up, and our lads will have to go in and rescue the poor individuals who are underground.
Once, there was no stowing. I remind the Minister that there are still four men sealed in the pit that I worked. In 1940, when I had just started, I was pony driving, taking 260 sand down to seal it off, when it went up a second time. There are four still in there because it was too dangerous to go in for them. The consensus was that they were dead. Since stowing started, we have never had an explosion. At Bentley in the 1930s, I think that over 30 men were left in because stowing was not done then.
I am frightened that, if there is not investment in stowing in deep mines, our lads from the miners' rescue squads will have to rescue the poor sods who are down there. I hope that it never happens. I hope that the Minister will pass on to the chairman of British Coal, whom we saw this afternoon, that conditions should be laid down before licences are granted.
There is to be an increase in opencast operations. We all know what has been happening. Where there has been permission to take 50,000 tonnes, when that has been extracted, British Coal has agreed to the extraction of a few more tonnes just because the machinery was there. What will happen if the operators want a bit more when they are taking 250,000 tonnes? I remind the Minister that this is not America or Canada. It is a small island. The Government are raping it by allowing this to go ahead.
If it takes two years to get 25,000 tonnes, with lorries going through beautiful little villages, will it take 20 years to get 250,000 tonnes? If Conservative Members vote for this, I remind them that permission will be granted about the time of the next election, and their electors will not like it. I would not like it if lorries were passing my house for 10 to 20 years. They could do it in five or six years by increasing the capacity of the lorries and having them going past people's front doors 24 hours a day. If that is the outlook of a Government who say that they have green policies, thank goodness they do not have the opposite to green policies, or they would double the amount again.
I ask the Minister to consider even at the eleventh hour keeping the quantity to 50,000 tonnes. He should give the kiddies and mothers who live round these developments a break. That is not asking a lot. Unless pressure has been put on the Minister—I do not know people who do such a thing—he should limit the amount to 50,000 tonnes. That should be enough in any area. I ask the Minister to consider that again when the Bill goes to another place.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
For the past two and a half years, as parliamentary private secretary to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), I have by convention been unable to participate in coal debates. Therefore, I seek the opportunity of a newly won liberation to support the Bill which has been brought to the House by my right hon. Friend. As he knows, I represent a number of miners in the Cannock Chase coalfield.
I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) said about the Bill showing the Government's commitment to the coal industry. To write off £5,000 million of accumulated debt represents a substantial commitment, and I challenge any hon. Member to suggest that the Government do not care about it. Those who work in it should understand that, as a result of the munificence of the taxpayer, the industry is being restructured. It will be put on a proper financial footing, which is only fair and proper after it has dramatically improved its productivity.
261 It must be recognised that the redundancy payments are more generous than those that have been offered by other industries. Those payments are the latest in a long line of investments that the Government have made in the industry. Hon. Members mentioned investment in private mines. There is no doubt that my constituents have benefited from the Government's investment in the coal industry.
I welcome the liberalisation measures in the Bill. It gives Conservative Members much pleasure to see the Labour party so vociferously opposing clause 4. Whether it will extend its opposition to other clauses is another matter, but I believe that the liberalisation measures are modest.
Conservative Members understand the sincerity of the views expressed by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) and other Labour Members. We recognise that they hold heartfelt opinions about the industry in which they worked and in which they saw their friends killed. I hope that they do not believe that Conservative Members give safety a lower priority than they do, because we believe passionately in it. I honestly believe that the Labour party cannot argue that it is in favour of giving safety the high priority that it alleges it does when it is prepared to countenance the continuation of private pits that employ only 30 men, which cannot be economically viable unless they operate old-fashioned and dangerous techniques.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done well in bringing the Bill before the House. It will greatly benefit the coal industry in the private and public sectors.
§ Mr. Allen McKay
I shall begin where the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) left off—with the writing off of the coal industry's debts.
Labour Members welcome anything that will improve the industry's debts, but the Bill should be put in perspective. The industry has incurred most of its debts on redundancy payments and pension provision. When the Government talk about writing off its debts, they are talking about writing off its social costs.
No figure has been given for the amount of debt that will be written off. Some of the money that has been allocated will be spent on continuing to pay for the debt. It has not been said when and how the debt will be written off. That point must be answered.
We have been asking for help for the nationalised coal industry for the past two or three years. It does not require much thought to realise that this is an enabling Bill for the privatisation of the coal industry in the next Parliament, should the Government be re-elected.
The Secretary of State did not fully answer the question about the managers of private mines. A manager does not merely to to university, gain a degree and have a class 1 mining certificate. He also has to go through a period of apprenticeship, and he must work in every facet of the colliery, before he can obtain the practical experience to go with his academic experience and his degree. Where will the managers come from for the expansion in private mining? They will not be plucked out of thin air. The managers who have been made redundant from British Coal and to whom I have spoken are adamant that they will not go into the privatised mines. Where will they come from, and how?
The Secretary of State also did not answer the question about electrical and mechanical engineers. He did not say 262 whether an electrical engineer or a mechanical engineer would be in charge, and whether one would be in charge for the whole 24 hours or whether one would be in charge for each shift.
I want to return to what my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said about the viability of the mechanisation of private mines. Who will pay the capital costs? The only reason why the industry was capitalised and mechanised was that it became a nationalised industry. In the old days, the private owners could not afford that mechanisation. What makes the Secretary of State think that the owners will be able to afford mechanisation? How will they obtain a return on the tremendous capital costs of mechanising even one coal face?
I want to see the legislation on opencasting tightened up now that the Government have increased the amount of coal that can be taken in that way. A mine in my area has gone through the usual stages and will hold up the industrial development of the area for the next eight to 10 years. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) believe that it will cause huge devastation to the locality. There is the prospect of opencasting in the valley, and the people on the periphery of the valley will not be able to ignore the noise and the dust, because there will be no baffles.
In addition, the River Dearne will have to be redirected, which we certainly do not want. Following the huge opencast executive applications are a number of small private applications which will devastate the whole area. Some of the areas were opencast areas in the 1950s. As a result of new technology, opencasting can go deeper, so we shall have opencast applications time and time again, if we are not careful.
As for subsidence, we must debate the Waddilove report on the Floor of the House. That would be only justice. We should debate the recommendations, the form of compensation and the need for compensation. All my constituency is devastated because of mining subsidence, although the collieries that caused that subsidence are closed. Who is picking up the cheque for the repairs that need to be carried out?
Should this Government return to power and privatise the mines before the Waddilove report is debated, and before compensation arrangements are effectively tidied up, who will pay the costs of mining subsidence? The people in those areas want an answer to those questions. We have asked them time and time again, but we have never had an answer. It is time that all the cards were put on the table so that we can see what will happen to the mining districts, and especially to the mining communities.
§ 11.3 pm
§ Mr. Lofthouse
I want to point out to the Secretary of State that, although I welcome any financial assistance for the British coal industry, I regret the amount of finance that has been made available for redundancies, because I wish that it had not been necessary. Whatever the argument over the total numbers, it is a fact that thousands of men will lose their jobs. We should hear in mind that fact, and the fact that, as I have often said in the House, the average age of these young miners is 34. There is no cushion of weekly payments, as the redundancy 263 payments will be based on a lump sum. Many of those young men are burdened by large mortgages, and the present interest rates do not help.
In January 1987, the Select Committee on Energy said clearly that the industry should never again be run down so rapidly without a policy co-ordinated by the Departments of Energy, of Trade and Industry and of Employment to cushion the blow and limit the social consequences.
Since 1985, when the rundown began, some mining communities, including my own, have had not one farthing of Government assistance in attracting alternative employment. Only about three weeks ago, I accompanied a deputation to the Department of Trade and Industry and met the Minister for Industry, who was very sympathetic to our problems in the mining communities—certainly to those of my own constituency—but told us clearly that he could offer us no assistance whatever because our areas had not been zoned as having intermediate area status.
Thousands and thousands of jobs have gone, and we had no assistance at all. That cannot continue. One is forced to think—it is certainly what my constituents think—that the reason why the Government are not interested in helping our areas is purely political. The Government know full well that, even if they help us to attract industry, it will not win them any votes. It will certainly not win them Pontefract and Castleford. Nevertheless, the Government have a moral obligation to give some assistance to the communities that their policies have wiped out.
Has the Secretary of State any plans to help the thousands of young miners who will lost their jobs? Does he plan to have discussions with his colleagues to try to decide whether the areas can be helped to find jobs for these young men? If he has no such plans, the Government's policy is immoral and they have kicked the miners in the teeth. If there are no signs of help, my constituents' suspicions will be confirmed. I suggest that the Secretary of State and the Minister should give a lead—unlike their predecessors—and show that they have some feeling for the mining communities.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.