|Previous Section||Home Page|
There are those concerned with the coal industry who will be looking longingly at the coal industry in America. I have visited American pits, and I know that there are safe ones, but there are also dangerous ones, and my anxiety is that in the unfolding situation in the British coal industry we will see the dangerous ones rather than the better ones emulated. Those anxieties need to be allayed, otherwise the Minister will run the risk of being charged with putting a cover round those who are rather reckless in their attitude to the coal industry.
Having read the regulations and listened to the speeches from the two Front Benches, I was satisfied that, in these regulations, we had achieved a reasonably fair balance, with a wide measure of acceptability across the political spectrum. Having listened to some of the comments that have been made since then, however, I think that it is important to probe the original speeches a little to see whether points of substance have been raised or whether what we have been hearing is unnecessary scaremongering for those listening to, or reading the report of, our debate.
Anybody who has been down a pit recognises that those who spend their working lives underground are uniquely vulnerable. I have been down pits in many parts of the country. The experience of hon. Members on both sides of the House of the mining industry and the representations that were made when the regulations were being drafted have to be borne in mind.
If the regulations are to be accepted, high standards of maintenance and enhanced safety must come first. I seek my hon. Friend's assurance that safety will be put first. Notwithstanding the carping criticism in the debate, I hope that that clear message will be given.
Apart from maintaining and enhancing the high standards of safety, will my hon. Friend confirm that the regulations will have firm statutory force and that they will apply both to British Coal and to the private sector, whatever their future status in relation to each other may be? Will he also confirm that the codes of practice will be made more easily comprehensible so that specific problems can be tackled as they arise? Will my hon. Friend confirm that the regulations enjoy the support of both management and all the unions in the industry? If the unions as well as the management support the regulations, the Opposition's criticisms have gone well beyond the views of the union's negotiators who participated in the preparation of the regulations.
If, as a consequence of subsequent parts of the package, questions arise about the safety of exits, can my hon. Friend assure the House that the matter will be looked at again? I hope that my hon. Friend will give firm assurances about all these questions. If, as I believe, his answer to all of them is yes, the regulations should receive not just the approval of the House but a very warm welcome.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Column 917understand that the debate must end by 11.47. I am sure that the House will want to leave time for the Minister to comment on some of the matters that have been raised.
Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford) : The regulations will lead to a fundamental break with the safety legislation. Is that necessary? The safety regulations should be strengthened, if a case can be made out for doing so. My experience of the mining industry goes back over many years, both as a face worker and as a member of the management team. The regulations will not strengthen the safety laws. They will be diluted.
The regulations will lead to a move away from a statutory obligation to a code of conduct.
Mr. Cope indicated dissent.
I make a further point as regards egress. There was reference earlier to egress from the winding shafts, but there are other forms of egress from headings with just one way in and one way out. As I understand the regulations here, the current situation is that where a manager requires more than nine men, plus any other workers such as deputies, to work in a heading of that nature, he must get Her Majesty's inspectors' authorisation before he can increase that number. As I understand this regulation, that will not now be necessary and the manager will be able to decide for himself. If that is the case, that is diluting the present regulations.
I hope the Minister will take full note that, after a long investigation into the future of the mining industry by the Energy Select Committee in 1986, it took evidence from those we expected to be experts. The evidence given to us at that time was that it would not be necessary for any alterations at all to the regulations apart from the working hours. Mr. Kenneth Moses, who has been referred to earlier this evening, who made a speech to the Mines Qualifications Board on 18 March, I understand, will not expect his managers slavishly to carry out the codes of conduct. During the investigation I personally put a question to Sir Robert Haslam. For the benefit of the House I will quote :
"Are you aware that many of the elements of this new strategy assume the deregulation of the coal industry and coal mines legislation will have to be amended and diluted?"
The strategy referred to was the mechanisation of the British industry as recommended by Mr. Albert Wheeler. Sir Robert replied : "We realise that to bring about the kind of changes Mr. Wheeler is outlining, there would have to be quite radical changes in legislation, yes."
At that moment I noticed some of the witnesses with Sir Robert that morning shaking their heads, so I put a further question : "I notice a shaking of the heads there. In other words, some of the witnesses are not agreeing with what you are saying, Sir Robert. Can you indicate in your view or any of your officials' view, which specific regulations and which piece of legislation you think will be required as an amendment, so that the Wheeler plan can be implemented?"
Column 918The same Mr. Moses who was saying that he did not expect his managers slavishly to carry out the code gave this answer : "There is only one piece of legislation that would require any amendment to carry out Mr. Wheeler's plan, and that is the Hours of Work Act 1908 which limits the amount of time a man can spend underground in a normal shift. There will be no requirement to amend the Mines and Quarries Act ; there will be no requirement to amend any safety legislation whatsover."
Mr. Moses goes on to say in 10.19 :
"What I am saying is that if you take all the elements of Mr. Wheeler's suggestions which might be implemented to improve the performance of pits, there is no requirement to amend either the Mines and Quarries Act or any orders and regulations made under the Mines and Quarries Act, the Health and Safety Act or any orders made under the Health and Safety Act to enable any of these suggestions to be carried out. There is a requirement to amend the Hours of Work Act 1908."
There was then a further question from me :
"Will there be no pressure from the Coal Board to do so?" Mr. Moses : "No."
Mr. Illsley : Far be it for me to defend Mr. Moses, but what he might have been saying was technically correct. There is no intention to amend the Mines and Quarries Act 1954. According to the written reply I have dated 27 May 1988 from the Department,
"The intention is to replace the Mines and Quarries Act 1954"--[ Official Report, 20 May 1988 ; Vol. 133, c. 613. ]
Not amend it, but simply to do away with it altogether.
Mr. Lofthouse : I fully appreciate that point. Mr. Moses, in his senior position in British Coal, was deceiving the Energy Select Committee because the Minister has told us tonight that discussions and negotiations were taking place two years before Mr. Moses gave evidence to the Select Committee. Mr. Moses must have known that. If Mr. Moses, the technical director of British Coal and a mining expert, could tell the Select Committee that there was no reason whatsoever why the regulations would need to be changed, why are they being changed? We can only conclude that it is in preparation for privatisation. When the other 15 regulations are produced--it is a pity they are not before us tonight--I am sure that they will represent a continued dilution of the safety laws in the mining industry. People who worked in the mining industry prior to its nationalisation know what that means.
I am not convinced that the true and honest motive behind the regulations is simply to strengthen the safety laws. I believe that they are in preparation for privatisation.
I stress that the regulation that gives the manager the sole right to decide how many men go in a heading is extremely dangerous. The mining industry has already started operating the American system. Many of the headings have only one entrance and the roofs are supported only by roof bolts. That creates added danger. If hon. Members want confirmation of that, they should read the evidence of Her Majesty's chief inspector of mines to the Select Committee. He said that roof bolting alone was not satisfactory for United Kingdom mines. That practice is taking place in headings with only one entrance and one exit, putting men in danger. Yet the regulations will allow the manager to decide to increase the number of men from nine to 18 without the permission of Her Majesty's inspectorate. That is diluting the regulations.
Column 919I am sorry that we have decided not to vote against the regulations as I believe that they are a retrograde step for the safety of mines in Britain.
Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley) : I shall detain the House for only a few minutes. I have some sympathy with the Minister in dealing with the regulations. There is an old saying, "To know me, come and live with me". To know what makes the industry tick, and why it ticks, it is necessary to spend a considerable time in the industry. I listened to the Minister's opening speech with great care, but I was not convinced. Perhaps when he replies to the debate he will convince me that the regulation is a good thing.
The Minister talked about consultation, but one does not consult with the management of British Coal. If one does not accept what they say they will not play ball--they simply take the bat and ball away. We met the British Coal board the other day, and I have yet to meet a more arrogant and conceited group of individuals.
If we refer to the Mines and Quarries Act, we get back to the old theme that regulations need to be enforced. If miners object to discrepancies and complain that managers are failing to comply with mines and quarries regulations, they are classed as troublemakers and are forced out of the industry. For proof of that we need only talk to the men who have experienced these problems.
It is all very well to talk about safety practices, but they go by the board when British Coal wants to see increased production coming up the shaft. There is a danger that British Coal is getting shot of men and threatening men who dare to question the integrity of the mines and quarries safety practices.
The Minister assured us that the regulations would have legal backing. I urge him to speak to present and former mines and quarries inspectors about provisions having legal backing. He might then take a different view about such matters having the force of law. Is the Minister aware that a reduction in the roadway height must have an effect on ventilation? I am not a mining engineer, but I assure the Minister that the domino theory comes into effect because, once one section is interfered with, there is bound to be a knock-on effect. The Health and Safety Executive will have the right to disregard any of the regulations if it claims that in doing so it is meeting a British Coal request.
I hope that the Minister will do more to convince me of the need for the regulations, because I cannot, from what he has said so far, consider them to be beneficial for the future of the coal industry. Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : I worked underground for 20 years as an electrical engineer and 13 years as an industrial relations officer. During the time I was underground I was president of the NUM at my colliery and I was a No. 1, 2 and 3 inspector at that colliery. Hon. Members will understand, therefore, that I take a great interest in the health and safety regulations applying to mining.
Column 920I was fined on two occasions for breaking the then existing regulations, once by the manager and once by the inspector, and on each occasion they shoved across the table to me the document containing the rules and regulations--the bible, as we called it-- and said, "That is what you have broken. It is a statutory
I mention that experience to show that, while the Minister may talk about the regulations and the approved code of practice having legal status--that they could be used in court--he must realise that all of that will apply after the event. A code of practice is precisely that--a guide, a code than can be altered by the mine management, by British Coal--and I do not think it need return to this House to be altered. It must be done in consultation, but it need not return to Parliament. When a matter arrives in court, there will have been an accident. That will be the only time that a code of practice will be tested legally. Can the president of the NUM or a representative of any other trade union take a manager to court, not because there has been an accident but because the code of practice has been broken? In view of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), may we have an assurance that, should problems occur with any of the other packages under this set of regulations, we will be able to return to the issue? The Minister said that there was little difference between what my hon. Friend sought and what was proposed. What precisely is the difference?
My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth spoke about fast headings. I worked under private enterprise in the mines, from
non-mechanisation to mechanisation, and I saw the rules and regulations altered to suit the new conditions as bigger machinery was installed. I suggest that to have 18 men in a fast heading is too many in view of the size of the machinery that is now in use. A recent newspaper article said :
"British Coal is lobbying the Government to hasten measures which could radically alter the way the industry is run. The corporation wants speedy changes in health and safety legislation in order to clear the way for new working practices to increase efficiency." It went on :
"they are reluctant to see definite instructions on safety"-- referring to the unions--
"replaced with broader recommendations. As one union official said, they do want to see shall' replaced with as far as is reasonably practicable.' "
Regulation 3(1)(b) states :
"the shafts or outlets are so separated that as far as is practicable".
Regulation 3(2) states :
"The manager shall ensure that, so far as is practicable". Regulation 8(2) states :
"The person for the time being in charge of that part of the mine shall ensure that any such barrier or enclosure is properly maintained and kept in position."
However, the original regulation has been altered, because the word "deputy" has now been left out. This is the beginning of doing away with the safety representatives in the collieries--the deputies. We can see that in black and white. The word "deputy" has been taken out and that has left the manager able to put someone in charge other than the person who has been in charge of safety for every minute that the colliery has been open. Those are changes that are taking place.
The changes have been accepted and we shall not vote on them, but we have made the points that should have been made. Some points cannot be answered, because the
Column 921real answers are here in black and white. We shall look carefully at the regulations as they come into effect. We want the assurance that we shall be able to come back to the original regulations if we find anything untoward in the new ones.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : I will confine my remarks to the important issue of the number of men allowed in a heading where there is no separate means of exit. As the Minister will know, the regulations refer not to "men", but to "persons" because it is proposed in the Employment Bill to allow women to work in the pits and to place them in circumstances in which they could be blocked in a heading.
Before 1 April, when the present regulations came into force, the law on numbers in a non-exit heading was contained in section 24 of the Mines and Quarries Act 1954. It allowed only nine men in a heading where there was no separate exit, other than in exceptional circumstances under a notice issued by an inspector. Exemption certificates were issued carefully and only ever for small numbers of people. There is seldom a need to operate with more than nine men in a heading. Why is the law now being changed?
The new regulations allow nine men, or persons, into those headings, plus three others engaged temporarily in inspection, investigation, measurement or sampling. But how long is "temporarily"? The code of practice from the Health and Safety Commission, which operates in association with the regulations, explains that for us. Section 31 states that it is :
"to allow such persons as managers, mining and engineering supervisory staff, inspectors, workpeople's inspectors and surveyors to enter the heading."
For how long? The code of practice states :
"for as long as is necessary to do their work."
In other words, "temporary" will be for as long as it takes. The manager can now decide to have 18 persons in such a heading provided he fulfils certain conditions and notifies the inspector of mines and quarries for the district. Sections 32 and 33 of the code of practice are headed :
"Managers' rules where more than nine persons are employed in headings."
But it should not be managers who rule. It should be the inspectors, as under past law, custom and practice, who make the decisions. Managers will be subject to increasing commercial pressures with the electricity privatisation and competing floods of coal imports coming through the Humber ports. They should not be expected to balance safety considerations against a push for increased productivity. The two functions should be undertaken by different people.
The dangers of working in a heading are shown by the events at 91s main gate at 10.30 am on Friday 13 January at High Moor pit in my constituency. They occurred under the Mines and Quarries Act, but illustrate the need to change the current regulations and the code. I shall paraphrase the report of the inquiry by A. Ingham, the chief mining engineer, and I hope that I do not distort his work unfairly. High Moor is in the South Yorkshire area of British Coal. At approximately 10.30 am on Friday 13 January
Column 922this year, 30 m. of roof collapsed between 210 m. and 240 m. into what is in effect a tunnel 990 m. long. Ten men, one over the nine, were trapped inside.
The inquiry pointed out that the accident was due not to any geological factors or to other seam operations, but to the fact that the girders were too far away from the roadway so that it was not correctly protected. When the fall took place the girders collapsed with a domino effect leaving people blocked inside.
The report contained a set of recommendations and I hope that they will be included in any future revision of these measures in order to ensure proper safety within roadways.
Mr. Cope rose --
Mr. Cope : I shall do my best to respond to as many points as possible, but I thought it better to give one or two more hon. Members the opportunity to speak. I shall respond in writing to those whose points I do not touch on in the remaining few minutes. First, let me do my best to try to reassure hon. Members about the origins of the legislation and of codes of practice. The legal reason for the introduction of codes of practice goes back to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, introduced by the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) against the background that I described. Section 1 of that Act says :
"shall in particular have effect with a view to enabling the enactment specified in the third column of Schedule 1 and the regulations, orders and other instruments in force under those enactments to be progressively replaced by a system of regulations and approved codes of practice operating in combination with other provisions of this Part".
One of the Acts of Parliament mentioned in the schedule referred to is the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 and the other Acts that have been replaced by regulations under that. Therefore, the origin of all this is the Robens committee and the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 passed by a Labour Government. The Health and Safety Commission put that provision into effect.
Several hon. Members have asked about the legal position of approved codes of practice. Failure to observe any provisions of an approved code of practice is prima facie evidence of a breach of statutory duty. The onus of proof is on the accused, British Coal or whoever, to prove that the law has been complied with. That is a strong measure which will be influential.
I was asked by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) whether somebody could be taken to court for breach of the code of practice. Certainly. The regulations must be complied with. If somebody fails to follow the code of practice, he is, prima facie, likely to be in breach of the regulations. Breach of the code of practice is evidence of the breach of the regulations, unless those regulations are shown to have been met in some other way.
I was asked by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) whether the Department of Energy was involved in the consultations. It was. He also asked whether
Column 923workmen's inspections were affected by the regulations. They are not. They will remain as the hon. Gentleman has known them from his personal experience.
The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) thought, like others, that all 16 regulations should be in a single package. The decision was made by the Health and Safety Commission ; it was not decided by me or any other Minister. I think that it is a help that the consultations should proceed separately on different parts. The consultations will be interlinked and we may have to refer back to the regulations and to the code of practice later. The other parts of the package will have to be examined in the light of these regulations.
A senior British Coal official made a statement recently about the code of practice. I want to make it absolutely clear that neither British Coal nor any other mine owner can choose whether to comply with the law or with the regulations. I have explained that prosecution can follow breaches of the regulations. Mine owners will have to satisfy the courts that their chosen methods meet the regulations. So British Coal is not and should not be above the law. Several hon. Members referred to the arrangements for nine men working in a heading. The position is that inspectors frequently granted exemptions from the provisions of the old law when more than nine men were to work in a single entry blind heading. Under the new regulations a mine manager must notify us--
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to order [21 April] :
The House divided : Ayes 24, Noes 95.
Division No. 176] [11.47 pm
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Beith, A. J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mr. Dennis Skinner and
Mr. Martin Redmond.