§ 7.18 p.m.
§ Lord Cavendish of Furness
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
§ Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Cavendish of Furness.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe) in the Chair.]
§ Clause 1 [Subsidence damage to which Act applies]:
§ On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ Lord Renton
I welcome this clause. I do so because somewhat unusually, it contains the definitions which govern much of the rest of the Bill and that comes at the beginning of the Bill instead of the end, which is more normal practice. I hope that the example given by the draftsman on this occasion will be followed on many other occasions.
Perhaps I may also say that this Committee stage is a nostalgic experience for me. In another place I piloted the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957, which this Bill repeals and re-enacts with amendments. That Act consisted of 18 sections and two schedules. It was contained in 32 small pages of statutes at large. Alas, this Bill has 54 clauses, eight schedules and is contained in 58 much larger pages. It is therefore characteristic of the excessively detailed legislation which is presented to us nowadays. However, I must confess that I shall later move an amendment which, though succinct in its terms, will add slightly but necessarily to the length of the Bill.
§ Lord Cavendish of Furness
Perhaps I may take the opportunity to thank my noble friend for his general welcome of the Bill and its drafting. Since it will be self-evident to noble Lords that I claim no credit for it, I agree that it is a well drafted Bill. I know that my noble friend's remarks will give pleasure where they are deserved.
§ Clause 1 agreed to.
§ Clauses 2 to 18 agreed to.
§ Lord Renton moved Amendment No. 1.
§ Before Clause 19, insert the following new clause:
§ Environmental duties
§ (".—In formulating or implementing any proposals for remedial action in respect of subsidence damage, the Corporation shall—
- (a) have regard to the desirability of preserving natural beauty, of conserving flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features of special interest and of protecting sites, buildings and objects of architectural, historic or archaeological interest; and
- (b) so far as possible ensure that the proposals include measures to mitigate any adverse effect which the proposed activities may have on the natural beauty of the countryside or on any such flora, fauna, features, sites, buildings or objects.").
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment imposes upon the British Coal Corporation a duty to have regard to environmental factors in formulating or implementing any proposals for remedial action in respect of subsidence damage. Some of us believe that it would be an advantage if the amendment imposed such a duty on the corporation in respect of all its operations, including the sinking of new coal mines, surface works and so forth, as well as opencast mining which is dealt with separately. However, the Long Title of the Bill restricts the application of the amendment. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady David, has added her name. I look forward to hearing her support of the amendment.
It will be seen that the amendment is in simple terms which nobody should dispute; namely, that the proposals shall,
have regard to the desirability of preserving natural beauty, of conserving flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features of special interest and of protecting sites, buildings and objects of architectural, historic or archaeological interest".
Paragraph (b) requires the corporation, so far as possible, to,
ensure that the proposals include measures to mitigate any adverse effect which the proposed activities may have on the natural beauty of the countryside".
§ In fairness, I should perhaps point out that Clause 19 of the Bill gives protection to ancient monuments and listed buildings. In doing so it repeats a similar provision contained in the 1957 Act. There is therefore nothing new about it. However, in regard to the broader responsibility which I have described, there are good precedents for it. The first is contained in the Electricity Act 1957, which I also had the responsibility of piloting. That similar responsibility has been introduced in recent years to the Water Act and I believe it is to be found in the gas Acts. I am glad to say that it is a growing tendency of legislation to require people undertaking these various matters to have regard to environmental factors.
§ When considering the New Roads and Street Works Bill earlier this evening, Amendment No. 16 135 tabled in another place required an environmental assessment to be made. Amendment No. 1 is not controversial. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will feel able to accept it. I beg to move.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
With respect to my noble friend Lord Renton, there are problems with Amendment No. 1, two of which he has forthrightly acknowledged. I shall come to them in a moment. Paragraph (a) of the amendment identifies certain environmental duties of a general nature to be observed for the protection of our heritage, if I can put it broadly that way. The hope is that one day some environment protection Bill of general application will find its way on to the statute book. However, the imposition of that duty upon the corporation and its limitation to remedial action in respect of subsidence damage is not acceptable, both on grounds of form and substance.
My noble friend Lord Renton referred to the aspect of limitation.
§ Lord Renton
No, I did not. My noble friend may have overlooked the fact that a number of statutory precedents exist for exactly what is proposed in the amendment. If it should be an obligation upon the electricity authority as it was, and now the various electricity boards, to have regard to those statutes, surely it is right that the British Coal Corporation should do the same.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
With the greatest respect to my noble friend, I did not mishear and I do not believe I misunderstood him. If I did, I hope that I shall be forgiven.
I said, with respect, that the limitation of the duty to remedial action in respect of subsidence damage is not acceptable. I shall leave out any reference to my noble friend Lord Renton in that context. It is not acceptable either in form or in substance. The amendment does not lie within the Long Title which sets out the broad purpose of the Bill's general intent. It would conflict with the structure of the Bill under which it is the claimant, not the corporation, which sets the standard of repair and under which the payments in lieu provisions of Part II must be taken into account. This is no time for legalistic technicality. The problems arising may be stated simply and shortly.
Sites, buildings and objects of architectural, historic or archaeological interest under paragraph (a) of the amendment are covered by Clause 19 of the Bill which provides that scheduled monuments, ancient monuments and listed buildings shall be restored to their former condition so as to maintain their special interest. Paragraph (b) of the amendment takes no account whatever of the payment provisions in Part II of the Bill. Although remedial action will normally be taken by works, the use of the term "proposed activities" in paragraph (b) of the amendment is not consistent with the payment provisions in Part II of the Bill. Furthermore, this amendment is concerned with the formulation or implementation of proposals for remedial action in Part II of the Bill. That has to be considered in context with the duty to take remedial 136 action in Clause 2, and the schedule of remedial works under Clause 6(2) (a) which requires the damage to be made good,so far as it is reasonably practicable to do so, to the reasonable satisfaction of the claimant and any other person interested".Under Clause 7 there is the obligation to execute the works as soon as reasonably practical. The payments in lieu provisions under Part II designate that the claimant or other interested person is entitled to payment. It is the claimant not the corporation which sets the standard of repair. In most cases he will insist that the land is restored to its former condition. In those cases there is no need for the amendment, but in others the effect of the amendment would be to make the corporation responsible for ensuring that the claimant has due regard for the environment. That is a responsibility which may not be discharged by the corporation because no powers to such purpose exist under the Bill or under any extant statute.
Another effect of the amendment is that it limits the protection of natural beauty and so forth and the heritage as set out in paragraph (a) of the amendment to cases where subsidence damage has occurred. In practical terms how can a corporation, in formulating or implementing proposals for remedial works, require the landowner to take such matters into account by making good subsidence damage to his satisfaction when such matters do not have to be taken into account by the landowner when carrying out improvements or developments to his land?
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Lord Renton
It may save the time of the Committee if I point out that the provision had to be limited to subsidence damage because of the Long Title of the Bill, which deals with that matter. I have listened carefully to my noble friend, but I cannot find anything in the Bill (even the provisions that he has mentioned) which is inconsistent with the amendment.
As regards Clause 19, on which my noble friend relies, it applies only to ancient monuments and listed buildings. The amendment goes a good deal further in preserving natural beauty and so forth.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
As to the charge made that there is nothing in the Bill which is inconsistent with the amendment or vice versa, there are two specific instances which alone will perhaps suffice. Paragraph (b) contains the words "proposed activities". That, and the whole concept of the amendment, ignores and excludes the financial payment in lieu provisions under Part II of the Bill. That is my view. My noble friend can shake his head, but we are entitled to differ and I do.
The second point of total conflict is the concept that under the Bill it is the claimant who has to have everything restored—if he has it restored—to his satisfaction. The amendment seeks to put that duty on the shoulders of the corporation. That is in conflict with the Bill. Therefore, the amendment drives straight into the broad construction of the Bill. For that reason alone it is defective and not acceptable.
Another effect of the amendment is that it limits the protection of natural beauty, as set out in paragraph 137 (a) (which I call the "heritage") to cases where subsidence damage has occurred. How can a corporation, in formulating and implementing proposals for remedial work, require the landowner to take such matters into account when they do not have to be taken into account by him when redeveloping the land and so forth? Under the Bill the environmental duties as proposed by the amendment lie within the province of the landowner. I speak with deference and will listen with the greatest possible care to everything that is said. I accept that I may be wrong. I also accept that my noble friend Lord Renton is probably right. However, that is how I see the amendment. If one is addressing the Committee, it is no use addressing it in someone else's shoes.
§ Baroness David
I do not think that I shall try to join in the battle between the two legal Lords. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that the Public Bill Office accepted the amendment. Presumably therefore it allowed the amendment to be put down, which means that it falls within the Long Title of the Bill. I shall confine my remarks to supporting the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Renton. During the passage of the Coal Industry Bill last year, in response to an amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, the Government accepted that an environmental duty should be placed on the private sector opencast mine operators. He limited his amendment to opencast mining after discussions with the Government, but he indicated that he would seek the first legislative opportunity to return to the more general issue of British Coal's environmental responsibilities, especially as they relate to the deep mine sector.
That is what the noble Lord is doing now in the amendment in his name and moved by the noble Lord, Lord Renton. The Bill provides an opportunity to complete the job and to ensure that the industry as a whole is governed by appropriate environmental responsibilities. It will create a level playing field by bringing deep mining into line with the opencast sector. That is especially important in the run-up to the possible privatisation of British Coal. The Bill provides the last opportunity to ensure that the industry as a whole faces restructuring, with its environmental responsibilities clearly defined.
One of the arguments against a statutory environmental duty was cited by the Minister during Second Reading. It is that there is no need for such a duty as the planning process provides adequate environmental safeguards. The Minister quoted two planning decisions in support of that argument; namely, those of Selby and Hawkhurst Moor. The Minister pointed out that planning permission was refused at Hawkhurst Moor because British Coal had failed to address properly the environmental implications of the proposal.
In our view the Hawkhurst Moor decision precisely illustrates the need for a statutory environmental duty on British Coal's deep mine operations to strengthen and complement its existing commitments under the 138 planning system. A recent edition of Planning magazine of 1st March of this year commented on the Hawkhurst Moor decision that,it is not difficult to escape the conclusion that British Coal is still lacking in sophistication over its environmental stance".The inspector went on to detail a number of separate failures on the part of British Coal in considering the environmental impact of the proposals. I shall not take up time to quote those now. In our view, and in the view of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Hawkhurst Moor decision illustrates the invaluable role of the planning system in protecting the environment against manifestly unsuitable proposals for coal mining activities. However, it also clearly illustrates the urgent need for a statutory environmental duty to focus the mind of British Coal when planning new investment. That would help to avoid the waste of significant amounts of time and money involved in public consideration of clearly inappropriate planning applications. I hope that that response to the Minister will convince him that perhaps his earlier remarks were not entirely suitable. I have great pleasure in supporting the noble Lord, Lord Renton, in his amendment.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
I hate to interrupt the proceedings, but perhaps the Committee will forgive me if I ask the noble Baroness whether she appreciates that I was not saying that the amendment is in any way out of order. The amendment has been accepted by the Public Bill Office. The amendment is totally in order and falls within what is permitted. However, what is permitted, as this is a Government Bill, is to enlarge the scope of the title. The Public Bill Office accepts that. All I am suggesting, with respect, is that it is not appropriate to enlarge the scope of the general intendment of the Bill; that this is really a matter for a general environmental Bill. I mention that only because I want to explain what I was trying to put over.
§ Baroness David
We do not have an environmental Bill. We cannot really be blamed for taking the opportunity that is on offer here.
§ Lord Ezra
I have considerable sympathy for the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and supported by the noble Baroness, Lady David. I should like to say that, from my experience, the coal industry was very conscious of the environment and did everything it could to preserve it. Nonetheless, there ought to be a statutory statement of intent and an obligation on such a large organisation to accept the very highest environmental standards.
However, where I am a little doubtful is whether this is the appropriate place for such an amendment; particularly as it is purely limited to the impact of subsidence. The noble Baroness, Lady David, spoke about investment in coal mining operations. That would not be covered by this amendment at all. Although it might be difficult to visualise in what other impending legislation such a clause might be introduced, I feel that it is of very limited impact, put forward as it is in the context of a Bill dealing exclusively with subsidence. Therefore, while I 139 support the concept I have some doubts as to whether it is really appropriate to include it, as drafted, in this Bill.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
I, too, support the amendment, even though I appreciate the limitations which are laid on it by the kind of Bill we are discussing. As my noble friend Lady David said, it seems reasonable that the whole industry—deep mining as well as opencast—should have some regard to the need to protect the environment. This is a good opportunity to put the issue before the industry.
As we have heard, such duties exist already. Two previous coal Bills have been mentioned. I have a list of nine Bills in which this specific kind of duty is laid on an undertaking. I shall not weary the House with reading them all. However, I should like to mention those which were enacted in the 1980s, during the time of this Government. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 laid such a duty on the water authorities and on the Forestry Commission. The wording, as I recall—and I must confess that I have not checked it this evening—is very similar to that now before your Lordships. The Agriculture Act 1986 gave the Minister a duty to balance environmental interests. The Water Act 1989 gave the Secretary of State, the Minister, the director and every relevant body such a duty. The Electricity Act 1989 gave that duty to the Secretary of State, the director and licence holder. Those examples establish a precedent for this kind of amendment.
The Government appeared to accept the need for British, Coal to consider the environmental impact of its activities. At Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, said:I wish to stress that I am completely committed to the importance of British Coal taking full account of the environmental impact of its activities. There is nothing between us in principle on that point".—(Official Report, 17/5/91; co1.1884.)He went on to say that an attempt to put this kind of amendment in the Bill would trivialise those responsibilities. However, that is not the view of the Council for the Protection of Rural England which has considerable expertise in these matters. The noble Lord's theory is not supported in other areas of responsibility, as I have shown in the quotations I have just given.
The coal mining industry undoubtedly has an impact in general; transport links, mine water discharge, spoil disposal, and so on. We cannot approach those in the Bill, and I understand that. However, even within the limits of the Bill a sensitive approach can make a considerable difference to what happens in the restoration of subsidence damage. Without a statutory requirement such a careful approach from British Coal cannot be relied upon. I therefore support the amendment.
§ Lord Cavendish of Furness
I understand well noble Lords' reasons for tabling this amendment. I can assure them that I, too, share their concern for the environment. The intention behind the amendment is clear: British Coal should take into account the 140 environment when undertaking remedial action. But we are being asked to consider a specific amendment to this Bill and therefore we have to look at the actual effect it would have if applied.
The Bill is so arranged as to ensure that remedial action will generally mean that British Coal either undertakes repairs itself or enables the claimant to use his own contractor to undertake repairs. The amendment refers to flora, fauna, buildings of special architectural interest, and so forth, described by my noble friend as heritage, so it would not therefore have any application to repairs to ordinary domestic properties.
The first point I should like to make is that,sites, buildings and objects of architectural, historic or archaeologic interest",are already covered by Clause 19. That clause provides that scheduled monuments, ancient monuments and all listed buildings will be restored to their former condition so as to maintain their special interest. I think the Committee must agree that if, say, a listed building is repaired to its former condition the concerns which have prompted this amendment will have been fully met. I therefore suggest that that part of the amendment which refers to listed buildings, and so forth, is possibly redundant.
I now turn my attention to repairs to land since that is what could have an impact on flora, fauna, and so forth. The key factor to bear in mind is the standard of repair for land as set out in the Bill. Clause 6(2) (a) requires British Coal to make good the damage to the reasonable satisfaction of the claimant. That is a fundamental reason why this amendment cannot work. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway went straight to the heart of the matter. Clause 6(2) (a) means that it is the claimant, not British Coal, who sets the standard of repair. In almost all cases the claimant will insist that the land is restored to its former condition, in which case the anxieties expressed in the debate do not arise.
Conceivably, however, a claimant might decide that he would prefer repairs that resulted in an outcome that was somewhat different from the pre-damaged condition of the land in question. Under these circumstances, the effect of the amendment would be to put British Coal in an invidious, some would say impossible, position. It would have to take into account the desirability of preserving natural beauty and so forth when effecting repairs, and yet it is the claimant, not British Coal, who sets the standards. What the amendment would do, in other words, would be to place a responsibility on British Coal's shoulders which the Bill does not give it the power to carry out; or, to put it another way, the effect of this amendment would be to make British Coal responsible for ensuring that the claimant has due regard for the environment. This is neither fair, nor sensible, nor workable.
A further difficulty with the amendment is that it limits the protection of natural beauty and so forth to cases where subsidence damage has occurred. But what is the logic for requiring British Coal to require a landowner to take into account flora and fauna when he is determining how subsidence damage is 141 being put right if the landowner can ignore flora, fauna and so on when redeveloping his land, carrying out improvements or whatever? It simply makes no sense to restrict protection of the environment to those few occasions when land is damaged by subsidence.
The noble Baroness, Lady David, said that this is where the amendment would complete the job. I remind her that the amendment does not apply to British Coal's deep mine activities. It is anything but complete. This would be about as sensible as relying exclusively on the Bill to ensure the protection of listed buildings. The point of course is that there is a comprehensive regime for protecting listed buildings. The real question is whether there should be a similar regime to ensure that there are adequate requirements on landowners to preserve the natural beauty of their land. This is a question which goes far beyond the repair of subsidence damage and should be addressed comprehensively in the context of the existing planning regime, not in the context of this Bill.
The amendment is deficient in terms of its workability—because it places the responsibility on British Coal when it should be placing it on the landowner—and in terms of its scope—because it is limited to repairs following subsidence damage. More generally, while we must all be concerned to protect the environment, it does not follow that it makes sense to tack on to Bills which make provision for a detailed statutory regime general duties of the kind proposed by the amendment. The Coal Mining Subsidence Bill is itself entirely intended to mitigate the adverse effects of coal mining and to restoring both the natural and man-made environment. I do not believe that the proposed amendment would add to the measures proposed in the Bill, and indeed, as I have explained, it would in fact detract from them.
It is important to stress that British Coal already takes its environmental duties seriously, a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. In January of this year it adopted a framework policy statement on the environment. The statement covers every aspect of the corporation's business and sets out its responsibilities to the community and its concern for the environment. This is a worthwhile initiative and is to be welcomed.
I remind the Committee—and in this respect I take the opposite view from the noble Baroness, Lady David—that the Government plan to privatise the coal industry after the next election. The environmental responsibilities of the privatised industry are clearly one of the issues which will have to be addressed. It may be that a privatisation Bill would be a more suitable context for consideration of a general environmental duty underpinning the coal industry's operations. The precedents advanced by my noble friend Lord Renton and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, are far more akin to that kind of proposed legislation than to the Bill before us. I therefore urge my noble friend to withdraw the amendment and to leave consideration of this important issue to a context where it would actually produce benefits.
§ Lord Renton
I am grateful to all those who have spoken in the debate. I am especially grateful to my 142 noble friend Lord Cavendish for his full reply on behalf of the Government. I shall naturally wish to consider carefully what he has said.
There was common ground between all those who spoke in the debate that it would be highly desirable if a general obligation were placed on British Coal to have regard to environmental factors not only in relation to mining subsidence but also, as was stressed by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, in relation to other matters as well. I recollect from my own time at the Ministry of Power that the work done in restoring land after opencast mining was mostly extremely well done. There has been no technical difficulty about a statutory obligation towards the landowner and an obligation to do what is necessary to protect the environment. In relation to the Electricity Act 1957, there is an almost precisely similar obligation. No such problem has arisen there. If there is such a problem in this Bill it can be rectified perfectly easily by redrafting.
As I said in reply to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, I do not consider, having naturally read the Bill before I tabled the amendment, that the obligation placed on British Coal to satisfy the landowner is in any way consistent with placing on British Coal an obligation, in formulating its plans and in implementing them, to do what is necessary to protect the environment and the heritage.
I conceded at the outset that my amendment overlaps with Clause 19. I should have mentioned that I was moving it as a probing amendment in order to give Members of the Committee on both sides an opportunity to consider this important matter, which should not be ignored in relation even to mining subsidence. I am grateful to those who have expressed views on the matter. I hope that we shall not lose sight of it. I may come back to it at a later stage, having taken advice on any consequential amendments that may need to be considered. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clauses 19 to 27 agreed to.
§ Clause 28 [Payments for tenant farmers]:
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley moved Amendment No. 2:
Page 21, leave out lines 36 to 47 and insert:
("C is the compensation which would have been payable to the agricultural tenant under section 20 of the Compulsory Purchase Act 1965, had the land been compulsorily acquired at the relevant time.
V is the value of the land with vacant possession at the relevant time, if it had not been affected by the subsidence damage.
D is the amount of the depreciation payment made to the owner of the land.
(2) The Corporation shall not be liable to make a payment under this section to any person who has received a depreciation payment in respect of the same damage, but this section shall not prejudice the right of a tenant farmer to make a claim under section 30 of this Act.").
§ The noble Lord said: An amendment similar to this was debated in another place on 5th March and an undertaking was given by my honourable friend Mr. Heathcoat-Amory that he would look at this problem again. Therefore, I raise this matter once again with some little hope.143
§ The intention of the amendment is to make sure that the agricultural tenant is in the same situation as if he were faced with compulsory purchase. The Committee can read in the amendment that this has been cone by altering the meaning of items C, V and D in the Bill's formula. I can explain the detail of item C, which is the vital one, if Members of the Committee wish it. In brief, it refers to the compensation terms laid down under Section 20 of the Compulsory Purchase Act 1965, whereas in the Bill the terms are laid down under Section 12 of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968.
§ I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will be able to agree that reference to Section 20 of the Compulsory Purchase Act 1965 is a fairer way of compensating tenant farmers than reference to the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968. I beg to move.
§ 8 p.m.
§ Lord Cavendish of Furness
As presently drafted this clause provides for compensation to tenant farmers when the corporation makes a depreciation payment to the owner of any agricultural land. In those circumstances, the tenant would get a payment based on the provisions of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968. The entitlement under the 1968 Act is four times the annual rent. In the case of subsidence damage, however, the tenant has not necessarily lost the land. The payment is, therefore, modified to reflect the degree of depreciation caused to the holding. For example, if the owner was paid £1,000 to reflect the depreciation on a £10,000 holding of land, the tenant farmer would get 10 per cent. of four times his annual rent.
The practice of paying compensation to a tenant farmer based roughly on the compensation he would have received had his farm been compulsorily purchased was introduced by British Coal in its 1976 code of practice. Even in 1976 that did not represent the full range of compensation available to a tenant farmer whose farm was compulsorily acquired; for example, it took no account of the value of the unexpired term or interest in accordance with Section 59(2) (a) of the Land Compensation Act 1973 and Section 20 of the Compulsory Purchase Act 1965. Nevertheless, it served as a useful approximate and ensured that the tenant farmer received some compensation.
My noble friend's amendment is designed to bring compensation for tenant farmers more into line with the full range of compensation available, in the event of compulsory purchase applying, with the provisions of Section 20 of the Compulsory Purchase Act 1965. In summary, the amendment would mean that a tenant farmer would be entitled: first, to compensation for the value of his unexpired term or interest; secondly, any just allowance, usually referred to as "tenant right"; and, thirdly, compensation for loss or injury.
I applaud the spirit of my noble friend's amendment but, having considered the practical effect of it, I have to say that it has made me realise that one has to be careful not to push too far the analogy 144 between compulsory purchase and subsidence damage. The most obvious difference is that, with compulsory purchase, the tenant farmer actually loses his land. With subsidence damage, however, the tenant farmer's land may suffer a serious depreciation in value but he is generally going to be left with land which still has some value. He may well be able to obtain a reduction in rent to reflect the depreciation in value and this, combined with the existing compensation provisions, should enable him to obtain more land, leaving him overall in something resembling his former position. A further complication arises because subsidence damage can happen on a number of occasions depending on the degree of undermining. Compulsory purchase, on the other hand, is a one-off event.
For those reasons it seems to me that one must have some care about applying in a simplistic fashion the compulsory purchase arrangements to cases of subsidence damage. One must also recognise that many of the circumstances that the compulsory purchase provisions are designed to cover are, in fact, already covered by the provisions of the Bill. For example, "tenant right", which includes compensation for growing and harvested crops and produce is already covered by Clause 27 which deals with crop losses. Expenses such as removal cost are unlikely to be incurred unless the subsidence damage is so severe that the tenant farmer has to leave the land. In addition, up to the time the depreciation payment was made the tenant farmer will probably have been entitled to payments under Clause 30 in respect of loss of profits.
While it is important that a tenant farmer should be properly compensated in the event of subsidence damage, it would not be right to compensate him twice for the same expenses. I should, therefore, like to consider the matter further to see whether or not the Bill as presently drafted adequately compensates the tenant farmer. If it does not, and if I cannot satisfy myself in that respect, I would expect to bring forward an amendment at a later stage.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
I thank my noble friend for his response. I understand what he said, but there are just two points I should like to make. The first refers to the fact that he seemed slightly to assume in his remarks that the tenant would be able to obtain other land. However, in all probability—and I see that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, is smiling—he will not be able to do so. Therefore, he will be stuck with that piece of land. Secondly, perhaps my noble friend would be kind enough to look at subsection (2) of my amendment. I believe, and hope, that that deals with the possibility of the tenant trying to claim twice, as he suggested in his response.
In the meantime, I accept my noble friend's offer to look again at the matter. I understand the difficulty as regards drafting. Nevertheless, I hope that he will be able to put forward an alternative on Report. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 28 agreed to.
§ Clauses 29 to 36 agreed to.145
§ Lord Peston moved Amendment No. 3:
§ Before Clause 37, insert the following new clause:
§ ("Advice centres
§ .—(1) The Secretary of State shall, after consultation with the Corporation, ensure that the Corporation shall establish advice centres within three months of the commencement of this Act.
§ (2) The advice centres shall offer, free of charge, advice to all claimants in need of legal or technical advice on any matter relating to coal mining subsidence.
§ (3) The advice centres shall issue guidelines on the making of claims under regulations made under the provisions of this Act.
§ (4) All reasonable expenses of the advice centres will be met by the Corporation.
§ (5) The Corporation shall submit to the Secretary of State an annual report on the working of the advice centres to be established under the provision of this section.").
§ The noble Lord said: In speaking briefly to this amendment, I should like to reiterate the point that I made on Second Reading; namely, that the general view of the Opposition on the Bill is that we are supportive of it. I am introducing these amendments in the hope that one or two of them may interest the Government and with the view that they may strengthen the Bill. However, it not my desire to be interpreted as wishing in any way to undermine the basic principles of the Bill.
§ This amendment arose from a subject that was debated in another place and which was also raised in this Chamber on Second Reading. I have given the matter further thought. As I see it, the essence of the matter is that none of us disagrees on the importance of advice. Where the corporation, under Clause 26, meets its duty of notifying individual owners and occupiers that there is a risk of subsidence damage and notifies local authorities of such matters, it has already taken an important step forward. Of course, such notices are available free of charge so there is no problem in that respect.
§ The real question is, what does a person do who believes himself to be affected by subsidence damage? I shall return to the point of the difference between the factual statement that the people concerned "are affected" and the statement that they "believe that they are affected". That is partly what troubles me.
§ At that stage, it seems to me that what one has to do is most important and that what is required is advice. What one should do in such circumstances is by no means obvious from the Bill as it stands, even though the legislation provides that when one makes a claim all one's expenses will be reimbursed. In other words, the Bill is fairly favourable on that account. However, it does not say, "Well, the best thing to do is this …". One may go to a citizens' advice bureau or one may go to a law centre. I believe that it would be wholly advantageous—and, indeed, wholly advantageous in terms of the corporation's interest —if independent advice centres or bureaux were to be set up which could deal with this kind of problem.
§ In that connection, I have studied what I believe to be a ministerial statement from another place, but I have some difficulty in understanding the ministerial objection to the setting up of such advice centres. I have also learnt that the coal industry has endeavoured to be helpful in the matter. Indeed, it 146 voluntarily introduced at the beginning of the year a new low-cost independent arbitration scheme which is operated by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. That seems to me to be a good idea. However, my amendment goes further than that in its proposal to set up these advice centres.
§ I shall now raise a related issue. It is one to which I may wish to return at a later stage before we finish our deliberations on the Bill in two or three weeks' time. I refer to the distinction between being affected by subsidence and the belief that one is or might be so affected. In other words, everyone recognises the fact that this is not quite a hard-and-fast matter; essentially, we are dealing with risk and uncertainty. This is something that can happen and it may be that one is affected. People have written to me on that precise subject. For example, in addition to the physical damage caused, people can suffer psychologically as a result of worrying about such risks.
§ All that comes under the general heading of "blight". I am not convinced that the Bill as at present drafted fully deals with blight, especially since there is some question about the physical area to which compensation applies. It is not obvious that defining the area in the way the Bill does will cover all the problems associated with blight, if by that one means that, at least in part, there has been a fall in the value of property because, so to speak, "somewhere over there" mining is taking place. Those are the issues that I have in mind.
§ On the general subject of blight and uncertainty, I do not believe I have yet got to grips with how to deal with the matter. The Bill deals with it to some degree. I do not believe that my amendment covers that issue. I am just warning the Minister that the subject is still on my mind and I shall try to find a way of returning to it. In what is, as is agreed, a useful Bill, it would have been a distinct improvement—I do not accept that it would be costly—if we had tried to do something more about advice centres, which is why I have tabled the amendment. I beg to move.
§ Lord Ezra
The noble Lord, Lord Peston, has made an important point. The whole purpose of the Bill is to give even greater protection than has existed hitherto to persons who are, or could be, affected by mining subsidence. The way in which the coal industry has responded to the Bill and the action it has taken to support it shows that the industry is ready to try to make the Bill work. The question is how those who feel that they are, or are likely to be, affected by subsidence can be advised. It is important that they should be advised. They must feel that there is somewhere they can go to obtain a statement and an indication of what their rights are, what procedures they should follow and so forth.
However, I am a little reluctant to suggest that we impose upon the coal industry the added cost, which may or may not be large—we can argue about that—involved in setting up separate advice centres. Would the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, be met if, in coal mining areas, especially those where subsidence was a possibility or had occurred, the relevant coal organisation made it known, through the press or other media, where on the coal industry's, 147 premises people could obtain advice? As the coal industry is supportive of the Bill's intent, it would be reasonably objective in providing the information. The industry would have it at its disposal. The people living in mining areas would know where the offices of the various coal mining enterprises, the mines and other organisations are located, and I should have thought that the point could be properly met in that way rather than going to the expense of finding separate premises, staffing them with people who would have to be trained, and therefore incurring added expense.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Lord Cavendish of Furness
First, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for giving the Bill an overall welcome. I shall deal with one of his last points. first. He mentioned his continuing anxiety about blight, and I thank him for giving me notice that he would raise that matter. If he feels that there is anything that would be usefully discussed between now and the next stage, it would be simple to arrange a meeting.
The issue has been discussed on a number of occasions. I regret to tell the Committee that nothing I have heard today would make me wish to depart from our position on this issue. I make no apologies for repeating the Government's position in some detail
Advice centres miss the real point. We should not be aiming to assist claimants to negotiate a complex claim process. We should be concentrating on making the process simpler so that a claimant will not need detailed advice.
Let us look at how the system for a householder making a claim will work in future. He is first individually notified that his property may be damaged by subsidence. At the same time he will received a copy of an advisory leaflet explaining how to make a claim. Subsequently, he notices damage. He knows that the damage may well be due to subsidence and therefore makes a claim to British Coal. Unlike the present position, in future there will be only one Act governing claims and only one claim form. British Coal will then say whether or not it accepts the claim, and if it does, what remedial action it proposes. If there i s any dispute about the rejection of the claim or the nature of the remedial action, the householder can refer the matter, as was acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, to the low-cost, speedy arbitration scheme for subsidence disputes operated by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. British Coal will send all claimants details of the new scheme, including application forms, so householders will be aware that that option is open to them.
To submit a dispute to arbitration all the householder need do is send the chartered institute the application form which describes the nature of the dispute. That does not have to be done in technical language and specialist advice is unlikely to be necessary. One must also remember that in the event of a dispute the claimant does not have to prove that 148 damage is due to subsidence. The onus will be on British Coal to prove that the damage is not due to subsidence.
The arbitrator may ask for further information from the claimant but, if the dispute raises technical issues, it is the arbitrator, not the claimant, who will obtain the necessary expert advice. The arbitrator may call for expert evidence; he may visit the property in question; he may sit with one or more independent technical advisers; and he may commission an independent examination of the subject matter of the dispute. In any event, British Coal will bear the costs involved in obtaining such further independent advice.
At no point during that process would the claimant necessarily need any technical or legal advice. Relevant information about undermining, making a claim and resolving disputes would all have been provided automatically. Against that background, I am not clear that an advice centre would have a real role to play. It does not seem sensible to spend money on technically trained people just in order for them to advise the claimant that they should fill in a claim form, not to pay for lawyers to advise that perhaps the claim should be referred to the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators' scheme, the point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra.
I am not suggesting that technical or legal advice will never be necessary, but better notification procedures and the new arbitration procedure should reduce considerably the need for specialist advice. Where specialist advice is necessary I would remind the Committee of the provisions of Clause 38 which provides for all a successful claimant's reasonably incurred expenses to be reimbursed.
If local authorities feel the need to provide additional advice to householders, they are of course free to do so. Under Clause 47, the corporation is obliged to inform local authorities of its mining plans. British Coal has also assured me that it will provide assistance and information to local authorities. It wants to make the operation of new legislation as transparent as possible and has offered to make available to local authorities and others its new internal manual of procedures, which will be prepared in the light of the new legislation. That confirms what the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said about the corporation's willingness and desire to make the legislation work. It has also offered to make available the new internal training video when it is prepared and to provide information to local authorities on an ad hoc basis. I am sure the Committee will agree that those are helpful initiatives which are to be welcomed. Against the background of that greatly increased supply of information, I can see little to justify the extra expense of advice centres along the lines envisaged in the amendment.
I should also like to point out that I am not aware of any of the proponents of advice centres in this place or the other place having made any attempts to quantify the costs involved. I fail to understand how one can argue that advice centres are justified without having done so. Nobody is arguing that advice centres are intrinsically bad. The question is, do the benefits 149 justify the costs? Arguing in favour of an advice centre without having attempted at least to make a broad brush estimate of the costs is, in my view, open to serious objections. I have made it clear that I consider the benefits likely to be minimal and the costs likely to be considerable. I have heard no arguments or figures tonight to suggest that either of those propositions is wrong. In the circumstances, I ask the noble Lord to consider withdrawing his amendment.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I am totally ignorant of the subject but listening to what the noble Lord said, it is obvious that there is a comprehensive and no doubt expensive arbitration scheme. It has been set up to deal with claims once they are made. There are always slightly crackpot people who think they have a claim. They should be advised sensibly whether or not they have one; and it is not only crackpot people.
Before one reaches the stage of filling in the appropriate form one should seek advice. I can imagine people worrying, "Have I got subsidence? Will it mean that the end of my garden will collapse?" They ought to be able to ask someone, without entering into the elaborate procedure of filling in forms and being told by someone knowledgeable, "You have nothing to worry about". Alternatively, they may be told, "You have something to worry about. Now go and fill in the form". It could be something quite simple. Perhaps a specialist in the union could be financed to carry out that kind of activity. However, people should not and do not want to reach the stage of filling in forms and going to arbitration, which incurs costs.
§ Lord Cavendish of Furness
My Lords, I understand the anxiety of the noble Baroness. We are dealing with people who do not feel able to cope with such a problem at the early stage. I am confident that the simplicity of the procedure and goodwill on the part of the corporation to try to make this work will cover the problem. There is a stage before the arbitration procedure: the simple filling in of a claim in one's own words, stating what is wrong.
I take the point made by the noble Baroness. I shall leave the matter for the moment and write to her. I believe that I shall be able to reassure her that there is no anxiety. I certainly feel none.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply and other noble Lords for intervening. Following the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, I believe that the Bill leans over backwards in order to help the affected party, but it would not have to go much further to deal with the whole matter. Since it has gone so far to help the people affected, I am puzzled as to why it should not go a little further along the lines of the suggestion put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. I do not ever expect to be involved in such difficulties myself, but if one is affected then it seems a big problem.
This is not a simple matter of filling in a form. One is concerned about possible costs and similar problems, and that is why I see advice centres as a 150 solution. I entirely accept the noble Lord's view about costs and if I had known it before I would have worked on the matter. One ought to cost these suggestions, which is something that I am quite good at. I am sorry that he should tell me, as late as this, that I ought to have done so. He believes, a priori, that the costs are large and the benefits small. I am prepared to tell him that, a priori, the costs are small and the benefits large.
More seriously, it had not occurred to me that this was a highly costly business. I would not press it if I felt that it was. Nonetheless, the noble Lord made the point and he has given the Government's reply. We have done our duty and I say no more. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 37 agreed to.
§ Clause 38 [Reimbursement of successful claimants' expenses]:
Lord Peston moved Amendment No. 4:
Page 32, line 6, at end insert:
("(1A) The Corporation shall also pay any costs or expenses reasonably incurred by the householder served notices under section 46 subsections (4) and (6) below").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 6. I can be brief as the arguments are similar to those which I have just deployed. Central to what I have in mind is that there is a risk of subsidence damage, but no certainty. That is the nature of the problem. If the risks a priori—I seem to use that expression all the time—were high enough, even if they turn out to be groundless, it seems reasonable to me and, I hope, to all noble Lords that the householder should be reimbursed for the costs involved in dealing with all the problems. Equally, we do not wish to encourage people to engage in frivolous surveys and waste a lot of money, taking it for granted that they will be compensated if it turns out that there is no subsidence damage. This is one reason why my earlier amendment on advice centres is relevant.
It seems to me that with Amendment No. 4, the proposal that,
The Corporation shall … pay any cost or expenses reasonably incurred",
is quite a good way of reassuring people who believe that they are affected, whether or not it turns out that they are.
§ The other point is a straightforward technical one. If someone carries out a survey on a property as a form of protection in case there may be a subsidence problem and a claim for compensation, they will incur expense. I may be wrong, but, as I understand it, if more than three years go by from that date before there is progress with the mining operation which might cause subsidence before the damage occurs—and I wait to be told that I am mistaken—the Bill would not allow repayment for premature expenditure.
§ Therefore, my Amendment No. 6 replaces "three" with "six" and goes more in the direction of saying, "If you think you are worried, then incur some basic expenditure right away". Even if it is quite a few years 151 before that person gets to grips with the subsidence, he will be covered in terms of recompense. That is all I have in mind. I beg to move.
§ Lord Cavendish of Furness
My Lords, Clause 38 allows a claimant to recover the reasonable costs of preparing and pursuing a successful claim for subsidence damage against British Coal. My hope is that the Bill will greatly simplify the procedures for dealing with subsidence damage and that expert advice will generally be unnecessary. However, there will be cases where expert advice is required as it is important that the claimant should be able to recover his reasonably incurred costs if he is to be able to secure his rights.
Expenses are already defined in subsection (2) of Clause 38 in a way which enables a claimant to obtain a record of condition of his property should he so wish and claim back the costs in the event of a successful claim. Such surveys may well follow the individual notification of householders introduced in Clause 46.
British Coal will itself undertake records of condition where necessary, but in the majority of cases there will be no need, given that repairs will be to the claimant's reasonable satisfaction and not necessarily to the pre-damaged condition. I can nevertheless understand that a householder may feel happier if he commissions a record of condition in advance of mining. If the householder subsequently makes a successful claim against British Coal, it seems to me right that he should be able to reclaim the costs of the records of condition. But because there is generally no operational need for records of condition there is no case far reimbursing the cost of a survey if, in the event, there was no subsidence damage. If Amendment No. 4 were passed British Coal might as well stamp on the bottom of its Section 46 notices "Dear Householder, this voucher entitles you to a free record of condition at British Coal's expense". I am afraid I cannot convince myself that this is a sensible use of British Coal's resources.
It is also important to note that Amendment No. 4 as drafted would go beyond simply the commissioning of a record of condition. A claimant could also go out and spend significant sums of money on precautionary works; for example, he could dig trenches round his property, or make slits in the sides of buildings, and then send the bill to British Coal. There are two basic objections to this. First, mining plans can and do change for reasons that are not foreseeable, such as unexpected geological faulting. That means that considerable sums of money could be spent to prevent damage from subsidence which never in fact takes place.
Secondly, the costs of such measures are frequently out of all proportion to the damage they minimise. The average cost of settling a subsidence claim is, after all, only about £3,000. If, however, the costs make sense In view of the likely damage, Clause 33 already empowers British Coal to require measures to be taken at its expense. The government position regarding preventive and precautionary measures is quite clear. British Coal should execute such works or require others to do so only when there is a clear economic case for so doing. Amendment No. 4 seeks 152 to enable the carrying out of such works where there is no such justification and therefore should be resisted.
The Committee will have noted that Clause 38 enables the claimant to recover the reasonable costs associated with the prosecution and preparation of a claim incurred in the three-year period prior to a claim being made. Amendment No. 6 would extend the period to six years.
Three years should be more than adequate for a claimant to establish whether or not he has a claim, particularly when one remembers that the onus will be on British Coal to prove that damage is not due to subsidence. In other words, a claimant does not have to spend a lot of time building up a case. He can simply make a claim on the basis that he thinks damage is due to subsidence and leave it to British Coal to try to show otherwise. Expert advice may be required on other aspects of the claim, such as the method of repair recommended by British Coal, but these expenses will be incurred after the claim has been made and will not therefore be caught by the three-year period.
The advantage of a three-year period is that it gives the claimant an incentive to make a claim reasonably promptly. This tends to be in everyone's interests because the longer the delay between damage appearing and a claim being made, the greater the scope for otherwise avoidable arguments about, for example, the extent to which some of the damage might be due to natural wear and tear and unconnected with subsidence.
The three-year period will, of course, also apply to records of condition. I have already indicated that in my view records of condition are not essential. One must also bear in mind that the longer the period of time between the record of condition and the claim, the less its usefulness. In my view a six-year-old record of condition may well be of little or no use in assisting with the final settlement of the claim. I shall read carefully what the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said as regards Amendment No. 6 as I wish to satisfy myself that the Bill is fair. I shall reconsider the matter without commitment to see whether there is a case for returning with a government amendment.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Lord Peston
I thank the Minister for his extremely interesting reply. He brought out clearly the need to balance prudent behaviour with possible frivolous behaviour on the part of the householder. I take the noble Lord's point on that matter. Essentially he is saying that British Coal could be in the position, as it were, of saying, "Please have a survey done at our expense". Obviously I do not wish that to happen. However, if someone thinks about the possibility of damage in a sensible manner, and has a survey carried out or takes a few preventive measures, and it turns out ex post facto that such action was unnecessary, that does not mean it was stupid ex ante facto to have taken that action. We should not take it for granted that such a person should not be compensated.
My amendment may not be technically brilliant. I chose the word "reasonably" to illustrate the case of 153 someone who acted reasonably even if at a later stage it turned out that he did not need to take such action. I believe that that person should still be entitled to compensation. Even though I am pressing my point of view, I can well understand the opposite point of view. However, I would feel aggrieved if I acted sensibly as a householder and received no compensation because it later transpired that I need not have taken the action. Having made those remarks, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Peston moved Amendment No. 5:
Page 32, line 8, after ("claimant") insert ("or by a local authority acting on behalf of the claimant or as landlords, ").
§ The noble Lord said: This is a technical amendment. The matter has been brought to my attention by a group of local authorities. The amendment enables me to ask the Minister whether local authorities will be treated on a par with everyone else in this matter. My reading of the Bill suggests that they will, but local authorities are not certain. Will local authorities, as the Bill is drafted, be able to recover costs that they have reasonably incurred as landlords, or will they not be treated on a par with householders? I beg to move.
§ Lord Cavendish of Furness
As presently drafted this clause already enables a local authority to reclaim the reasonable costs of pursuing claims in connection with its own property. I hope that that reassures the noble Lord as I may have misunderstood and misjudged his amendment. The amendment also wants local authorities to be able to reclaim the costs incurred by them while acting on behalf of any claimant, whether a council tenant or not. I had the unworthy thought that this was an attempt to introduce advice centres by the back door. The Committee has already considered the question of advice centres. I hope I have gone some way towards reassuring the noble Lord and that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Peston
I assure the noble Lord that I am constitutionally incapable of introducing any measure by the back door. I always blunder in through the front door, whether it helps me or not. I was not seeking to do anything subtle. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 6 not moved.]
§ Clause 38 agreed to.
§ Clauses 39 to 43 agreed to.
§ Clause 44 [Time limits for certain disputes]:
Lord Peston moved Amendment No. 7:
Page 34, line 37, leave out ("three") and insert ("six").
§ The noble Lord said: I regard Amendment No. 7 as a technical amendment. Its purpose is to probe the Government on the three-year time limit for certain disputes. I understand that Clause 44 may offer the corporation some protection if it delays taking remedial action. Clause 44(2) (a) imposes a three-year limit within which the claimant may dispute a breach by the corporation. If the dispute concerns 154 non-payment of money or compensation, I am told that a three-year limit halves the normal limitation period of six years. Therefore, it seems that a period of six years should be imposed by subsection (2) (a) in the interests of consistency with the general law. I beg to move.
§ Lord Cavendish of Furness
This clause deals with the time limit for bringing an action in respect of an alleged failure by British Coal to comply with its obligations under Part II of the Bill. The time limit is whichever is the longer of three years from when British Coal is in breach of its remedial obligation, or six years from when the damage should have become apparent. The amendment seeks to extend the first period to six years. The effect would be to enable a claimant who has delayed making a claim until six years after he became aware of the damage to wait a further six years from British Coal's alleged default before starting an action. In other words, actions could still be brought against British Coal more than 12 years after the damage appeared. This is far too long a period and would be likely to lead to all sorts of complications. One can imagine how difficult it could be to resolve a dispute about damage 12 years after the event, particularly if there has been further wear and tear to the property.
I remind the Committee that the three-year period referred to in Clause 44(2) (a) only begins to run once a claim has been submitted and British Coal is in default. Clause 3(3) of the Bill already gives the claimant the extremely generous period of six years from the appearance of damage in which to submit his claim.
The effect of Clause 44 is that the claimant will always have a minimum of three years from default by British Coal to bring an action and could bring that up to more than nine years after the damage appeared, no matter how slow he was in submitting his claim. In my view those periods are more than adequate. I hope that I have been able to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and that he will be able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Peston
I thank the noble Lord. He has certainly reassured me. The difficulty is that this is not a subject on which I regard myself as remotely an expert. The answer sounded convincing, but I must go away and discover whether it really is. If the noble Lord is right and I am mistaken in saying that the position is not consistent, I shall be satisfied. For the moment at least, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 44 agreed to.
§ Clauses 45 to 47 agreed to.
§ Clause 48 [Provision of information on request]:
Lord Peston moved Amendment No. 8:
Page 37, line 39, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").
§ The noble Lord said: With the permission of the Committee I should like to speak to Amendments Nos. 8 through 11. Again, I shall not delay the Committee very long on this matter, especially as it was discussed in some detail in the other place and I 155 read the argument put forward by the Minister there. On the other hand, I am not entirely convinced by that argument and I thought that it would be useful to place on record the concern which leads one to argue that a register of information about subsidence should be established.
§ A particular point has been drawn to my attention. A prospective purchaser of a property in a relevant area has difficulty in obtaining information about previous claims relating to that property. It has been suggested to me that it is perfectly possible for a claim to have been made for payment for works to be carried out and for the works not to have been carried out. The purchaser of the property would then be refused compensation. I can understand why such a purchaser should be refused compensation: the compensation would already have been paid. The problem—and I do not see how it can be resolved without a register—is how a. purchaser ever finds that out.
§ In another place the Minister argued on two bases. One was the argument which the noble Lord has already used in connection with advice centres—namely, that it would be a significant undertaking. That is another way of saying that the costs would be high. He also warned against bureaucracy. However, as we move into the 1990s warnings against bureaucracy no longer carry the weight they used to carry as one of the watchwords of the 1980s. Therefore, I am not worried by being warned against bureaucracy.
§ On the other hand, I am certainly interested in whether the costs would be high. It does not seem to me that keeping a register would be expensive and it seems to me that the benefits would be overwhelming. I belong to the school of thought which believes that, on the whole, information is good. As an economist I know that, in terms of the working of the market mechanism, information is not only good but is intrinsic to the efficient working of the market mechanism. Therefore, if we have an opportunity to add to the information available to buyers and sellers of property we ought to take it. The purpose of the amendment is essentially to place on record my response to the arguments of the Minister in another place and to ask the Government, not with a great deal of hope, to think again as to whether a register could be provided and to consider again my view that such a register would not be very costly or bureaucratic. I beg to move
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Lord Ezra
I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on this amendment. I believe that Clause 48 does not go far enough. First, it is not certain that the Minister would make the appropriate regulations. Secondly, the amount of information made available appears to he of a limited nature. I should have thought that a register or list of subsidence damage would be compiled in any case and that that should therefore be made available to relevant and interested parties without any difficulty.
§ Lord Cavendish of Furness
At present British Coal provides information on past damage on search forms 156 agreed between itself and the Law Society. The forms provide information on past, present and future mining, and also details of past claims and how they were discharged. That means, in effect, that Amendment No. 9 is redundant because such information is already being provided. I also draw the Committee's attention to Clause 48(1) (a) which enables the Secretary of State to prescribe the information provided. I can assure the Committee that we shall use that power if we feel the corporation is providing insufficient information about past claims and mining plans. I therefore hope that the noble Lord will not move Amendment No. 10.
The fact that those arrangements have been agreed with the Law Society, whose members represent both buyers and sellers of property, suggests that they strike the right balance between a potential purchaser's legitimate right to know about a property and a householder's legitimate right not to have his privacy invaded without good reason. British Coal and the Law Society are keeping the arrangements under review and I am confident that that will ensure their continued successful operation. Should any serious difficulties emerge, the Secretary of State has the power to make regulations setting out new arrangements. I have received no representations that these arrangements are not working well and can see no reason for making regulations simply for the sake of it. I would therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw Amendment No. 8.
I do not see the case for a register of all claims since it would merely duplicate information held by British Coal and readily available from the corporation through the search forms. Such duplication would almost certainly lead to an increase in costs without offering any significant benefits. I shall not attempt to quantify the costs. Throughout, on all sides, we have attempted to keep an eye on costs because we need to be certain at the end of the day that the interests of British Coal are also taken into account.
It would also arguably be an invasion of privacy. It should be possible for a prospective purchaser to obtain such information. However, it is less clear that anyone at all should be able to obtain such information without the householder even being aware of the fact. It was for both of those reasons —cost and invasion of privacy—that the suggestion was rejected by the report of the other place's Energy Select Committee, which went on to endorse the arrangements between British Coal and the Law Society. I therefore ask the noble Lord not to proceed with Amendments Nos. 9 and 11.
§ Lord Peston
I thank the noble Lord for his replies. Again, I shall look very carefully at what he said. If Amendment No. 9 is redundant I could not be more pleased.
On the question of information generally, I do not accept the privacy argument. I do not believe that this type of information represents an intrusion into personal matters. I am not convinced by that argument.
On the question of cost and bureaucracy, the Minister made my point for me. As I understand it, British Coal has that information. It is purely a 157 question of the form in which it is kept. Essentially, a register would be a user-friendly form of information that would be available, so I do not believe that the argument about cost could possibly hold up in that case. However, I shall look at the matter further because I am equally reassured by the fact that the Law Society has considered the matter and is keeping an eye on it. As I understand it, the Government are saying that, if a problem of the kind that I have in mind arose, they would take it seriously and do something about it anyway. It may well be, therefore, 158 that I am a little premature in mentioning this point, but I am not certain about that. Having heard the Minister's reply, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 9 to 11 not moved.]
§ clause 48 agreed to.
§ Remaining clauses and schedules agreed to.
§ House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.
§ House adjourned at nine minutes before nine o'clock.