Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Speaker : Perhaps the Minister will respond to that as it is an out of time prayer.

10.17 pm

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) : I beg to move,

That the Mines (Safety of Exit) Regulations 1988 (S.I., 1988, No. 1729), dated 5th October 1988, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th November 1988, be revoked.

The House is well aware of the importance of mining safety regulations as compliance with them can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. They apply to one of our most dangerous industries, which is also one of the largest and most important industries in Britain.

The Minister will recall that during a recent debate on mine safety in the Standing Committee considering the Employment Bill I reaffirmed the Opposition's belief that the coal mining industry has a great long-term future as a producer of energy and chemical feedstocks. No matter how many pits are closed by the Government for short-term accountancy reasons, thousands of people will be working in our collieries long after North sea oil has run dry. Against that background I have to tell the Government tonight that yesterday's announcement about Bilston Glen and Monktonhall collieries just outside Edinburgh is a piece of economic lunacy which we are determined to resist.

The exit regulations before the House tonight are the first legislative package in a programme of new law which is intended effectively to replace all the existing mine safety legislation, including the Mines and Quarries Act 1954, the Mines Management Act 1971 and a host of national and local regulations made under those and earlier Acts on mine safety.

Each package consists of a set of regulations and an approved code of practice. The regulations are made under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. This constitutes a fundamental break with earlier mine safety laws in that there is not to be a modern piece of primary legislation specific to mine safety, such as the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 or the Coal Mines (Regulations) Act 1908.

A second important break with the past is the use of codes of practice, which of course do not have the same force of law as a statutory instrument. The programme of

Column 902

new law is intended to consist of 16 packages. Each package will consist of a set of new regulations and an approved code of practice. The exit regulations set out the facilities and conditions necessary for safe exit to the surface, the action to be taken when only one exit is available and the emergency apparatus to be provided when all apparatus normally used for exit to the surface becomes unavailable. The approved code of practice gives guidance on compliance with the regulations and sets out, for the first time in a code of practice, the best operating procedures when there is only one way out. As a senior executive of British Coal has been quoted as recently 8 March as saying that managers will not be required slavishly to follow the codes, I urge the Minister to make it clear that an approved code of practice must be fully implemented. What are the consequences of not doing so?

Why have the Government not brought forward a major new piece of primary legislation to replace the 1954 Act? Many of the 16 packages relate to each other and it is difficult to consider them in isolation. It is to the credit of the mining unions that during the negotiations they obtained an assurance that if a later package created a need to revise an earlier one, that would be done. Will the Minister confirm that?

It is hardly necessary for me to spell out to the House just how dangerous this industry is. The number of fatal accidents declined from 44 in 1982-83 to nine between 1988 and 1989. But last year the figure doubled to 18, and since 1 April 1989 there have already been two more fatalities.

The accident rates for the various industries are well set out in the latest annual report of the Health and Safety Executive, and the Minister will recall that only recently we had a major debate, at the initiative of the Opposition, on health and safety in the construction industry. I can bring home to hon. Members how dangerous coal mining is when I point out that the accident rates in mining are three times those for the construction industry.

In recent years we have seen a sharp fall in the number of mines and quarries inspectors. There has been a fall from 116 in 1979 to 72 in 1988. There can be no dispute as to the important role those inspectors play in health and safety in the mining industry. Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) rose--

Mr. Strang : I do not have time to give way, and in any case I will probably answer the question that the hon. Gentleman would have asked when I say that I accept that those figures must be set against the decline in manpower and the reduction in the number of pits. But most disturbing about the recent accident figures is the extent to which they are higher among private contractors working in British Coal collieries compared with direct employees of British Coal and, further, the extent to which accident rates among employees in the private licensed mines are higher still. For those reasons it is necessary to reverse the decline in the number of inspectors who watch over health and safety matters in the pits.

That reduction in the number of mines and quarries inspectors must be coupled with the proposals in the Management and Administration of Health and Safety in Mines Regulations, currently under discussion. That legislative package would abolish the office and functions of the pit deputy, who performs a vital role in the pits. His responsibilities include the immediate charge of workers in

Column 903

the district and their operations. Deputies may also carry out inspections and duties in relation to the presence of gas, into ventilation, the support of roof and sides and matters of general safety as required by the Mines and Quarries Act. Perhaps most importantly, deputies must give preference to the securing of the safety and health of the workmen employed in the mine over the securing of any other matters. Winston Churchill, speaking during the Second Reading debate on the 1911 Coal Mines Bill, said : "The deputies and firemen are the non-commissioned officers of the mining industry, and, just as the non-commissioned officers are said to be the backbone of the British Army, so the deputies and firemen are the essential foundations on which the safety and security of the mines mainly repose."--[ Official Report, 17 March 1911 ; Vol. 22 c. 2649.]

It is for that reason that I take the opportunity to tell the Minister that the administration package, as currently drafted, is utterly unacceptable to the Opposition. But we are, of course, debating the Mines (Safety of Exit) Regulations 1988 tonight. It has to be said that in recent years, Trades Union Congress

representatives on the Health and Safety Commission and others involved with the commission have invested a substantial amount of effort in securing a legislative package which aims to maintain, if not improve, the existing law for the safe exit from mines. As a result of pressure from the mining unions, significant changes have been made to the draft regulations during the consultative process. The earlier drafts of the regulations contained, for example, no requirement that the minimum height of a roadway should be 5 ft 6 in or 1.7 m, as referred to in the regulations.

Having achieved those changes, the regulations are supported not only by the Trades Union Congress, but by the three mining unions. We recognise the amount of work involved in the regulations and the improvements that have been made, but we are conscious that there are many more packages to come before the House. We earnestly urge the Government to ensure not only that they consult fully on those packages, but that the packages increase health and safety standards rather than diminish them and that they come before the House, as this package does, with the support of the mining unions. On that basis, we will not seek to divide the House tonight.

10.27 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. John Cope) : I apologise to the House that the code of practice was not in the Vote Office. It is in the Library, but I accept the criticism, although we are actually discussing the regulations. I want to set out briefly the background to the regulations and their contents, but I realise that many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall keep my remarks as brief as possible and then, if the House wishes, seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to respond to any points made in the course of the debate.

As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) said, mining is an inherently dangerous industry. However, the modern British mining industry is the safest in the world and that reflects the attention paid to safety over many years by all concerned. The current law is based on a royal commission report of 1938, whose recommendations formed the basis of the Mines and Quarries Act 1954. Since then, there have been major technological and other changes. There have been two more Acts of Parliament, 50 sets of general regulations and

Column 904

literally hundreds of local requirements and exemptions. It is time that all those were brought up to date and the regulations before us tonight start that process.

I was asked by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East why there was no new primary legislation in this area. The reason is that we believe that the primary legislation, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, should form the basis of health and safety legislation for mines and quarries, as for the rest of British industry.

Mr. Cryer : Part of the package involves the codes of practice. The Minister was here when I raised a point of order with Mr. Speaker about the lack of codes of practice in the Vote Office. I have been there again and the Minister has not arranged for any copies of the codes of practice to be placed in the Vote Office. That is a serious omission when we are debating the regulations, as a result of an Opposition initiative. The Government have not even troubled to lay a document before the House although, as I have emphasised, it will not be examined by any other body. Surely the document should be available.

Mr. Cope : The hon. Gentleman may not have been present when I dealt with that point earlier and explained that copies are in the Library. However, I accept the criticism, as I did earlier. It is time that we modernised and revised the mass of existing legislation. The new basis for the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 in industry of all kinds could hardly have a more cross-party basis on which to start, or, for that matter, a more mines-oriented parentage. It was based on the Robens committee and work on the agreement started under a Labour Government, proceeded under the Conservative Government of 1970-74 and was enacted by the incoming Labour Government later in 1974.

The regulations are introduced on the basis of that Act. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East said, this is the first of a series of regulations, 16 of which are planned, which will in due course supersede the existing law on mines and quarry safety.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : This is all about the privatisation of the pits. But is this the time, even for this Government, to be talking about relaxing safety laws when we have had so many accidents in industry, on the railways and at airports? Not satisfied with that, the Government want to relax the safety laws in the pits as well so that the privateers can make an easy killing. Is the Minister aware that the regulations are being introduced against a background of about a 130 per cent. increase in underground fires since the Government came into power? What kind of a Government would want to see more accidents in the pits?

Mr. Cope : In the first place, the regulations do not relax the safety requirements--

Mr. Skinner : I say they do.

Mr. Cope : They do not, and if they did they could not have been brought in under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act.

In the second place, no one has been killed or injured in a fire in a British mine for more than 20 years.

Mr. Skinner : There has been an increase in fires.

Column 905

Mr. Cope : Although more fires have been detected and extinguished, for which better equipment exists, Britain's safety record on fires is extremely good. Besides the Government are not advancing the regulations alone. They have wide support--

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West) : Is it not right to say that last year the number of underground fires fell to the lowest level for 10 years?

Mr. Cope : My hon. Friend probably is correct, but I am more concerned with safety and that is what was under criticism.

Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley) : Does the Minister accept that over the years regulations have been brought to the House to enforce safety factors in mines and they exist because of pit accidents? However one dresses the package up, it is taking away some of the measures which in the past have made safety paramount. These regulations are taking us a stage backwards.

Mr. Cope : The regulations supersede some previous ones, but they seek to improve and build on them as I shall seek to show in a moment.

It is not only the Government who have evolved the regulations. Work started on this package more than five years ago in 1983. The mines and quarries inspectorate and its colleagues in the Health and Safety Executive prepared the first draft which was published for informal consultation in November 1984.

After six months' consultation with the unions, employers and others, the Health and Safety Executive worked out a revised draft which was put to the tripartite Health and Safety Commission. It approved it and released it for formal consultation in November 1985. There were further meetings with all concerned, as a result of which there was further consideration and amendment. But the commission was most anxious that the final proposals should be acceptable to all concerned. So the amended drafts were the subject of a third consultation, beginning in August 1986.

By November 1986 it seemed that there was agreement all round. But in December of that year, the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers and the National Union of Mineworkers withdrew agreement and the whole programme was thrown into doubt. As a result, the commission asked Mr. Ray Buckton, a former commissioner of health and safety, to chair a series of meetings with the unions to try to find agreement. Finally, in June 1988 the unions accepted the regulations and the related code of practice and, apparently too, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act formula of regulations supported by approved codes of practice. The way was then clear for the set of regulations before us to be approved by the commission, sent to the Secretary of State and laid before Parliament. They were laid before the House on 29 November last, to come into force on 1 April this year.

I have spelt out the background in order to make clear that the regulations are not based on Ministers' ideas primarily. They have not sprung out of our heads, nor have they been imposed upon the unions by management.

Column 906

For the benefit of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), may I point out that they far predate any talk of privatisation. They are based on legislation introduced by the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), based on the recommendations of a committee chaired by a former Labour Member who was chairman of the National Coal Board. They have had five years of careful consultation with the unions and with others, and have been agreed and sent to Ministers by the tripartite Health and Safety Commission.

I am sure that all that consultation was worthwhile and necessary. I am not in any way criticising it or the amount of time that it has taken. On the contrary, as has already been stressed, it is important that there should be wide agreement on such a package of measures. Above all, I stress again that the regulations improve safety standards. They are introduced under an Act which allows us to introduce them only if they maintain or improve standards of health and safety.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : When have they been improved?

Mr. Cope : I am coming to that. The main thing that the regulations do is to bring together and clarify the existing provisions. They rearrange them into regulations and an approved code of practice. They tighten some of the provisions. I shall give some examples. They extend the requirement for two separate exits from coal mines to all other mines--an important provision. They set a minimum height of 1.7 m for all roadways, irrespective of who uses them or when they were constructed. They reduce from 100 to 50 the number of people permitted where there is only one air intake. They clarify the requirement that normally only nine people may work in places where there is only one exit, restrict the scope for exemptions that are granted at the moment and provide extra safeguards where there are more than nine people. They also require action plans from management, emergency equipment and so on.

I explained that some of the provisions are in regulations and some in approved codes of practice. I was asked about the approved codes of practice. The formula of having codes of practice and regulations derives from Robens and the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. In the rest of industry it has worked well over the years since its introduction.

An approved code of practice has legal backing in that if an employer does not follow the practice set out in the approved code of practice, and if legal proceedings result, he has to prove in court that the regulations were complied with in some other way. This allows for the different circumstances in different pits, and so on. Failure to follow approved codes of practice may be taken by a court in criminal proceedings as proof that a person has contravened the regulations or the section of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to which the provision relates. It is prima facie evidence in court and that is the extent of the legal backing that it has. There are, of course, many informal British Coal codes of practice in use in coal mines at the moment, as well as other managers' rules, and so on, which are also provided for in some of these regulations.

Column 907

All in all, these regulations are an important step forward not only in what they do but even more because they are the first steps in a renewal of all our law and regulations on the safety of mines and quarries. They have been, as I have spelt out at some length, painstakingly agreed by all concerned. I commend them to the House and believe that they should have the support of all parties.

Column 909

10.40 pm

Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian) : The Minister is an experienced parliamentarian and he will gather that there is a measure of suspicion, if not hostility, on the Opposition Benches when we discuss the question of safety. I am hardly very well disposed to the Minister because yesterday two pits in my constituency closed after 800 years of mining because of over-production and because there is no sale for the product.

This is a significant debate for us tonight. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) has said that the exit regulations now before us are a forerunner of what has been described as a package of new law which replaces all the existing mine safety legislation, including the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 and the Mines Management Act 1971, and a whole host of national and local regulations under earlier Acts on mine safety.

The Minister must explain to us the proper definition of an approved code of practice. It might have been helpful if, as mentioned in the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), we had had the necessary documentation before us. I ask the Minister if the men's representatives will have the opportunity to approve codes of practice before they are put before Parliament. He retailed to us a long discussion that had taken place with TUC representatives. Since he has told us that we are about to embark on a whole cycle of new regulations, we want to know what the position will be with regard to consultations with the representatives of the mining unions. It has been stated that the regulations are made under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, but this action constitutes a fundamental break with earlier mine safety laws, and there is not to be a modern piece of primary legislation on mine safety like the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 and so on. It is all very well to modernise and we would never object to modernisation, but it has to be demonstrated to us that these codes of practice, these packages, will be beneficial to safety in the mines. So I put it to the Minister--and we will have to be persuaded otherwise--that this is an important break with the past in the use of codes of practice. It may be my fault, but I was not really persuaded about the force of law in relation to these regulations. We want to know about the force of law for parliamentary purposes in the case, say, of statutory instruments. The Minister must clarify that very important legal point tonight. What legal standing do the regulations have? The Minister must bear in mind the statement made by an official from British Coal. I recorded the official's exact words. He said : "British Coal do not intend to carry out slavishly codes of practice."

It is important that that statement is clarified tonight. It is no good Parliament being involved in discussion, argument or debate if a senior executive at British Coal says that British Coal will not slavishly follow legislation, codes of practice or whatever else Parliament wants to define.

I was involved in the discussions about merging the mines inspectorate with the proposed Health and Safety Commission. If you were more free, Mr. Deputy Speaker,

Column 910

I am sure that you would want to put in your pennyworth, although we might not agree. You were involved in this matter as well. There were extreme doubts about the wisdom of the merger and I was one of the doubters. Would the authority, experience and independence of the mining inspectorate be undermined as a consequence of merging with the new commission? If it had been put to us that the method before us tonight was the way to deal with mine safety, would the industry and mining unions have agreed to sink their identity? I do not think that they would have.

One compromise was reached. There is a minute to the effect that in matters of mining safety the sponsoring Department--the Department of Energy--would be involved in full consultations. My hon. Friends and I in the miners' parliamentary group want to know, as do my colleagues who represent constituencies with powerful mining interests, whether the Department of Energy was involved in full consultations. The minute states that it had to be involved. What input has the Department made to the proposals before us?

The exit regulations are important because they set out the facilities and conditions necessary for safe exit to the surface and the action to be taken when only one exit is available. In my mining experience, which lasted more than 30 years, I had to lead men up an exit when the main shaft was blocked. I have led men up stair pits. I can assure the Minister that climbing a stair pit to the surface is not a pleasant task when the main shaft is blocked, particularly for men who have not done it before. I had plenty of experience because I was a workmen's inspector. It was part of my job to inspect those exits and also to climb them five or six times a year. Is there any change in the regulations concerning the authority, stature and influence of workmen's inspectors? Are there any new powers vested in them in the regulations? We hope that their powers have not been diminished. The Minister must say whether they have any additional powers and whether their existing powers are to be maintained. Some of us were concerned to find that there was to be no minimum height for roadways. It was only due to pressure from the mining unions that a maximum height for a normal roadway of not less than 5 ft. 6 in. became a requirement. The day should be past when miners have to walk like half-shut knives when making their way to an exit. The powers that be should be told by Parliament that we are disappointed that this had to drawn to their attention when it was an aspect that had long been under discussion.

The history of the coal industry has a record of blood in the coal. Too often miners have had to weep, bury their dead and generally grasp whatever comfort they could from their Churches and relatives. Mining safety is important. There was an increase in mining fatalities last year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East said, it is distressing that the statistics for accidents in private mines are much higher than those in British Coal mines. If there are plans for the privatisation of the coal industry, Parliament must be eternally vigilant when any mining safety regulations come before it. It will have to know whether the regulations are legally enforceable, and whether those administering, running and managing the mines can afford to ignore rather than follow slavishly codes of practice.

Column 911

We shall not regard these regulations, or any other regulations on mine safety, with complacency. I believe that my view reflects that of my hon. Friends. We shall scrutinise with utmost care any such measures that the Government bring before the House.

10.53 pm

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood) : I have not had the privilege of working in the mining industry, unlike a number of Opposition Members, in particular the hon. Member for East Lothian-- [Interruption.] I am sorry, the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie)--his constituency is next door, so why worry. However, I have lived all my life in coal field areas, the first 23 years in Scotland and the past 28 in Nottinghamshire, During that time, I have learnt that nothing surpasses safety in the coal industry.

I can vividly recall the disaster in Ayrshire in the 1950s, when the community was bereaved like the families in Liverpool today. The recommendations from the report of that disaster and others from across the British coal fields have made working in the industry safer. During the past 10 years there has been a major reduction in accidents in Britain's coal industry. The rate for all accidents for every 100,000 manshifts worked has fallen by two thirds, from 94.6 in 1978-79 to 29.3 in 1988-89.

Those figures belie the allegations made last year, and repeated recently by the Labour research department, that pit accidents were rising. The British coal industry has an unrivalled international reputation for its standards of safety and health. Accident prevention is the top priority of all miners and management throughout the industry--their lives depend on it. The Mines (Safety of Exit) Regulations strengthen the law, particularly by having to keep the nominated person informed. In the Nottinghamshire coal field that will usually be the Union of Democratic Mineworkers' branch secretary. The new regulations bring into line what is now practice under exemptions from the existing Mines and Quarries Act 1954 and regulations. In other respects there is no change.

While the overall safety record has improved owing to a combination of determined efforts by those who work in the industry, it is to everyone's regret that fatalities increased to 18 during 1988-89, compared with 15 in 1986-87 and nine--the lowest number ever--in 1987-88. In an attempt to achieve what we must all see as our goal, a zero fatality figure, the coal industry's safety campaign activities this year involve everyone in the collieries concentrating on preventing fatal and major injuries.

No better example could be produced than the safety-conscious miners of Clipstone colliery, in my constituency, who have won the national underground safety competition for the second time in three years. If their best were the national norm, and given the new regulations, mining would be a safer industry in which to work. 10.55 pm

Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck) : I spent the major part of my working life in the mining industry, protected by and complying with the various Acts and regulations governing safety in the mines. I cite especially the Mines and Quarries Act 1954, but I was in the industry even before the advent of that Act. I remember when I was governed by the Coal Mines Act 1911.

Column 912

I am particularly interested in the 16 new regulations. If there is one major flaw in our approach to them, it is our method of dealing with each regulation separately. They are not a package, and if we are to look at them at all that is how we should view them. They are all inter-related : safety of exit relates to electricity regulations, mechanical regulations, ventilatory regulations, and so forth. I hope that the Minister will give us an assurance that when all 16 have been examined we can examine them again, noting that the flaws in one may relate to another.

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) rightly pointed out that many existing safety regulations had evolved from accidents and disasters, both large and small, some causing heavy loss of life. Let me give an example that relates specifically to safety of exit. More than 100 years ago, in my county of Northumberland, the New Hartley mine had only one shaft--circumstances that prevailed at the time. Ventilation was provided by a furnace at the shaft bottom, which pulled the air up and allowed cool air to come down. At the top of the shaft was a beam pump operated by steam : this was used to extract water from the mine. While the beam pump was operating, the beam snapped. It went down the single shaft and sealed it off, trapping all the men and boys--some only eight years old. Literally hundreds died. As a result of that accident, from then on mines were expected to have at least two shafts--a significant development.

I am sure that those who draft and redraft mining legislation will have read the poignant stories of New Hartley and, for instance, Cresswell colliery, where a disaster involving the burning of conveyor belting led to new regulations being introduced. No doubt they have studied the reports produced at the time, and the horrendous stories relating to such accidents. Such events must be at the forefront of their minds when they draw up safety regulations such as these.

It has become apparent that the foundation of the present legislation has prevented many more deaths and serious occurrences. Changes are acceptable only if they will improve safety standards. Any legislation that lowers standards would and should be opposed. The mining industry is claimed to be the safest in the world, as the Minister said himself. I do not dispute that claim. I hope that these regulations will uphold that reputation, but there is a financial price to pay. The British miners have shown that, despite the high cost of safety, they will always produce a relatively high standard.

My role in the industry was in electrical engineering. While I had responsibilities for high standards of safety in electrical equipment upon which other miners depended, they, in their turn, were responsible for protecting my safety by ensuring that other equipment such as ventilation, roof supports, and roadways were secure and that the beams of the work place were safe.

In electrical engineering, standards and quality of equipment have improved dramatically in recent years. I have seen changes that I would not have believed possible when I entered the industry. These improvements have continued since I left the industry. So in all aspects improvements have taken place ; always in a nationalised industry safety came first.

I am concerned that this set of regulations does not reduce the safety aspects of leaving a work place or mine in circumstances that are potentially dangerous. I shall give a personal example. Before I left my place of

Column 913

employment in the mining industry--and I lived in Corrie--a new system of drawing men up the shaft was introduced. In fact, we did not have the normal procedure of a winch pulling a cage but a lift such as is in the Savoy hotel, believe it or not, although not quite up to that plush standard. However, it operated on the same principles. My responsibility as an engineer was, on occasion, to make sure the lift was working satisfactorily. When it did not work but broke down and stuck half way--this happens in the Savoy sometimes as well--with miners inside it was usually when they were coming out for a pint of beer on a Friday night. On such occasions I had to go to that lift and introduce a standby system which actually defeated some of the safety systems on the lift. I hope that the regulations prevent that sort of thing happening as standard practice. I hope that it will become part of the code of practice that that sort of equipment be protected.

The only real improvement I can detect is a small change in the language to be used in the drafting of regulations. In Schedule 2 (b) which refers to regulation 20 relating to a deputy's duty to be acquainted with ways leading to exits the words

"of egress therefrom or from any place therein"

are replaced by

"each leading to a different exit."

Later there is a further simplification. The words

"After from the district' for and from any such place'" are far more understandable expressed as

"and from every place where a person works."

I quote those two small examples to emphasise that miners are more used to using simple, clear and sometimes colourful language and not the pseudo- legal language often used in drafting Acts and regulations governing their lives and safety. That is all that I can really identify as an important change to the regulations.

In general I can see these regulations having a more significant effect upon people operating small private mines whose resources and enthusiasm for safety standards are somewhat limited. Many of the proposals included are already standard practice in British Coal mines, including internal codes of practice.

I am rather puzzled that in these regulations reference is made to the role of deputies. I would appreciate a comment from the Minister as to whether proposals will be laid before the House to alter both the title of the official and his important role. He is the principal officer responsible for on-site safety. If that is to happen, then this document before us should take that change into account. If the regulation is to change the role of the deputy, it should be the first to be considered. Any diminution of the role of the deputy will affect safety standards and the application of these regulations. In my long experience in the industry the deputy was the on-site safety officer for general safety standards. He was supported by skilled craftsmen with responsibility for the machinery's safety. If the deputy's responsibilities are reduced and shifted further up the management hierarchy, many of the regulations will be seriously affected in their application.

I understand that the mining unions have been consulted, and that they made valuable suggestions for changes that have been incorporated in the regulations. I welcome the unions' participation because they know as much as anyone about mining safety. I shall be interested to learn their views on future proposals.

Column 914

This package of 16 regulations can have a significant effect on the industry's future, for better or for worse. I hope that they will be for the better.

11.5 pm

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : I trust that brevity will not detract from the serious nature of the remarks that I shall make. As the House knows, I am sponsored by the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, and reference has already been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) and by others to NACODS' serious concern about the regulations. NACODS has an enormous interest in the regulations and in the others that will follow.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) referred to the association's concern. The House should be aware that the duties, experience, training and qualifications of the underground official reflect and provide for safety as well as for the pursuit of production. Will the Minister confirm that under the law as it was, or is, the priority of production was subordinate to that of safety? The anxiety felt about the regulations basically stems from concern as to whether production will command a greater priority than it has. It is in that regard--the additional risk to life and limb--that concern is most strongly felt.

I suspect, as do many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, that there are people who, especially with the prospect of private profit, wish to weaken the structure of and priority given to safety. I hope that I am wrong. However, confusion seems to exist in the mind of British Coal. When the Select Committee considered the matter in 1985-86--as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) will confirm--Sir Robert Haslam seemed to suggest that substantial changes to legislation were necessary. In the light of the Minister's comments about 1983, Sir Robert's remarks were consistent.

It appears that when Sir Robert made that point senior British Coal officials present indicated dissent. Mr. Moses stated--he repeated this comment in response to questioning by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford--that the only changes he wanted to see were changes in the Hours of Work Act 1908. He stressed that there was no need to amend regulations. According to the Minister, that was three years after the proceedings began. I believe that Sir Robert was honest with the Select Committee, but there seems to have been some inconsistency.

The first package was reluctantly accepted by NACODS, for two reasons. Originally there was no minimum height proposal. Given the political situation and the mood in the industry at the time, I suppose it was felt to be a triumph to reach agreement on an exit height of 1.7 m. That is less than my height, but I suppose the unions felt relieved that miners would not always be required to crawl. No doubt there are those on the Government Benches and in Hobart house who would be happy if they were made to crawl. NACODS was assured--and I ask the Minister to comment on this--and it was promised that if it agreed, and if other parts of further packages were unacceptable, the association could return to the first package. Will the Minister confirm that such a promise was made? I feel some anxiety about whether that promise can be fulfilled.

Column 915

The Minister acknowledges that there have been months of deliberation, months of argument, and months in which the unions, the inspectorate and others involved, including officials of the Department, gave serious thought and consideration to the regulations. At a meeting of the Mining Qualifications Board--this has been referred to already, so the Minister will have to comment on it--there was a discussion about whether the candidates for mining engineering qualifications should have access to works of reference during the examination. Mr. Moses said-- and I am quoting again, but I shall complete the quotation because, so far, it has not been completed--

"My managers will not slavishly follow the code of practice". He went on to say :

"I will send out instructions that will supersede these codes." The Minister must understand that such a statement from such a principal person --the technical director of the British coal industry--justifies the concern of this House. Is privatisation such a god that proper regard for democratic and constitutional procedure can be set at naught? The Minister must answer that point. I do not know whether Mr. Moses has any explanation to offer, but, if not, the Minister has a duty to offer one.

I suspect that the sort of attitude that is still to be found in the industry concerns the commitment to produce regardless of the consideration of safety. There is only one pit left in my constituency. It is a successful pit with good men and good management. But throughout my area there has been mining for generations. Indeed, people from three generations of my family were underground officials. The history of my area, as in the case of Northumberland and the other coalfields, is riddled with example after example of the priority and predominance of production. There have been series of accidents where the dominance of production has been the major factor in the loss of life. We are worried--very worried indeed--that the priorities are now about to shift. Reference has been made to accident rates. Last week, in this building, there was a press conference concerned with mine safety. Concern was expressed about the increased incidence of major accidents and major injuries. British Coal was far quicker off the mark in replying to that than it had been in advising people seeking to defend the coal industry during the proceedings on the Electricity Bill. It was far quicker off the mark than it had been in advising or helping us in seeking to defend the coal industry against the development of Humber ports to import South African coal. On the very day on which that press conference was held British Coal issued another statement suggesting that there were fewer accidents. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) may have forgotten that, as a result of the implementation of the bonus scheme, men are much more reluctant to report minor accidents. But major accidents cannot be disguised, and the number of major accidents and major incidents is increasing.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) : Before leaving that point, would my hon. Friend comment on the fact that the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1985 made it more difficult to compare like with like on either side of the date of implementation?

Next Section

  Home Page