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Column 241Sackville, Hon Tom
Shaw, David (Dover)
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Taylor, Rt Hon J. D. (S'ford)
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Townend, John (Bridlington)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Wheeler, Sir John
Winterton, Mrs Ann
Woodcock, Dr. Mike
Young, Sir George (Acton)
Younger, Rt Hon George
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. John M. Taylor and
Mr. Stephen Dorrell.
Question accordingly negatived.
(2A) After subsection (2) of that section there shall be inserted--
(A licence under subsection (2)(a) above shall not be granted to) (a
(any person who, or company which, has been convicted of an offence relating to its colliery activities in the relevant period, or) (b
(any company in which the controlling interest is held by a person who, or company which, has been convicted of an offence relating to its colliery activities in the relevant period.) ( ) For the purposes of subsection (2B) above the relevant period' shall be defined as five years prior to the date of the application for a licence under subsection (2)(a) above, or the date upon which this Act received its Royal Assent, whichever shall be later.".'.
We are concerned about the lack of regard to safety and health accompanying the increase in the number of private mineworkers. It cannot be denied that the safety record of the private mining industry is appalling and would not be tolerated in most industries. On Second Reading and in Committee, we discussed the ratio between major reportable accidents, and fatal accidents, in the private sector and those in mines operated by British Coal.
In Committee last week, the Minister referred to a press statement issued on 8 January by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) about the number of underground private-sector mineworkers. In order to ensure that the statistics used were safe, my hon. Friend assumed that about 4,000 were employed, but the next day the then Under-Secretary of State said that he believed that the figure was about 1,700. That can be found in column 121 of the Official Report, Standing Committee A, 9 January 1990.
My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras received from the Secretary of State a written reply to a parliamentary question today in which figures were given from the British Coal Corporation's annual report for 1988-89 showing that only 1,524 people were working underground in the private licensed sector. In
Column 242other words, the record that we regarded as bad when we began to look at the statistics for the private sector is shown to be even worse than we thought.
The Government say that we exaggerate the concern that is felt and that coal mining is, by its nature, a dangerous job. That is so, and that is why we are seeking to ensure that safety standards are of the highest.
The amendment would prevent anyone who had been convicted under the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 from being granted a licence to mine for coal. That is not to ask for a great deal, for we are again seeking an assurance that safety standards will be paramount and that they will be considered as the first priority for everyone in the mining industry, be that British Coal or the Federation of Small Mines of Great Britain in the private sector. We have not been convinced that that priority exists. The utmost protection must be given to those who work in that sector of the industry.
Many questions about the Bill have been put to the Department, and we still await answers to them. For example, it appears that British Coal was not consulted before the changes were proposed. In a British Coal press release following the publication of the Bill, it was said that British Coal would be having discussions with the Government. Have those discussions taken place, and if so, what was the outcome? We have asked whether the Department of Energy or any other Government Department has discussed the issue with the mines and quarries inspectorate, which has statutory responsibility for the upkeep of safety standards in British coal mines. I hope that, when responding to the debate on the amendment, the Secretary of State will answer our questions. Until now, we have received only assertions, which have gone no way to allaying our fears about safety and health in an expanded private licensed sector.
The mines and quarries inspectorate shares our fears. For that reason, in the summer of 1988, it initiated a meeting with the Federation of Small Mines and gave a damning indictment of the standards of safety in that sector of the industry. In a newspaper report dated 4 October 1988, Mr. Albert Davies, a deputy chief inspector of mines, was reported as having said in relation to that indictment of safety practices in that sector :
"Professional standards of management in licensed mines must improve. All too often the reports record very poor mechanical, electrical and mining standards. There is no excuse for these or the fact that managers often do not understand what proper standards should be."
The principal district inspector of mines and quarries in the south-western district wrote to all licensed coal mine owners and managers in 1988 instructing them to improve safety standards. Is it any wonder that we are concerned about the amount of regard that is given to safety in that sector when, in response to such criticism, the chairman of the Federation of Small Mines said on 3 October 1988 :
"I think it would be an error to focus too much on safety." Does the Secretary of State take that view, or does he agree that those who operate in that sector must be proven to have safety as their first consideration?
In the last 10 years, the Government have allowed safety standards to fall and to become subordinate to cutting costs and increasing profit. In that period, there
Column 243have been nine convictions under the Mines and Quarries Act, at least two of which were the result of deaths in that sector. It would be interesting to know how many of those nine prosecutions were mounted after an accident had occurred and how many, if any, were mounted after the mines and quarries inspectors had found something not up to standard. If, as I suspect, most, if not all, of those convictions occurred following an accident or a death, the Opposition's fears about that sector and whether we should be discussing its expansion are justified.
Incidentally, another written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras contained the information about the prosecutions over the past 10 years. In every one of those nine cases, the owners of the mines were found guilty as charged. The fines totalled more than £31,000. In one case, a fine of only £1,500 was imposed after a death occurred leading to a conviction under the Mines and Quarries Act 1954. It does not seem to me or my hon. Friends, whether or not they have worked in coal mining, that that would be much of a deterrent after the loss of a life after breaking the law. That is a paltry fine. We have been repeatedly told that raising the numbers that can work underground in private mines will make the pits safer, as there will be investment in modern technology.
Many Conservative Members, although sadly not Ministers, accept that the private sector seems to think that such investment will take place only if there is total deregulation. Is it not more to the point that the raising of the employment limit is a sop to those in the City and on the Conservative Back Benches who made it quite plain on Second Reading that they were pressing the Government for more deregulation and privatisation? It is just a taster of what they have in mind for the industry in future.
The former Under-Secretary of State told us--almost as his parting shot from the Department of Energy--in a press release from the Department of Energy that the new provisions
"should also provide opportunities for new employment through working remnant coal at closed pits".
That seems a contradiction in terms, but given the fact that that statement was made in a press release from the Department of Energy, perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us tonight exactly what lay behind the comments in the press release which were not made on Second Reading nor in Committee when the Minister used some of the press release.
A statement was sent out to the press telling us that the Government are now talking about
"working remnant coal at closed pits".
Very few pits operated by British Coal would be accessible for private coal mine operators--most of them are too deep. The pits that have already closed have put that coal out of reach. It is a great loss to the coal industry and to the nation that those reserves have been sterilised, perhaps for good. Are we to assume that, in the few cases where it might be possible, the private mine operator will inherit the benefits of all the investments made by British Coal, or rather the British public, in sinking shafts and maintaining them over the years? What will happen if private operators take over mines that are running down production?
Will the Secretary of State tell us--I see that he is swapping notes with the new Under-Secretary of State--exactly what is meant by 150 people in clause 4? Does it mean that 150 people will be underground at a particular mine on a particular day? Does it mean that there will be
Column 244a limit on the number of people underground but no limit on the number of people who can be employed at a particular mine? As opposed to the present situation, when there may be 30 people at a mine, could there be 150 people at a mine on different shifts? It is important that we have answers to those questions, as it is not certain exactly what will happen.
The Secretary of State may be aware that, in Committee, we said that it was impossible to find out exactly how many people work in that sector of the industry--hence the three misleading statements about the total work force, or exactly how many people work in each individual coal mine. That seems wrong under the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908, which states that people who work in a coal mine should be registered.
Consequently, the Department should be able to answer questions similar to the question that my hon Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras put to the Secretary of State for Employment : "if he will list the private licensed coal mines known to the mines and quarries inspectorate, giving the numbers employed below ground in each case."
The reply was :
"Following is a list of private licensed mines held by Her Majesty's inspectorate. Figures for persons employed at individual mines are not readily available."--[ Official Report, 15 January 1990 ; Vol. 165, c. 64 .]
We argued in Committee that that would be a breach of coal-mining regulations under the 1908 Act. Given that the Secretary of State intends to expand by ten times the number of people who can work in these mines, what guarantee have we that the regulation will be complied with? We have no idea how many people will be working in the private mines.
We are not satisfied by the complacent attitude of Government spokesmen that everything will be all right, and that particular attention is not needed. It is abhorrent to us that a sector so damned by the mines and quarries inspectorate should be given freedom to employ more workers without prior evidence of a commitment to uphold safety standards.
That is why we believe that amendment No. 2 will not guide the Department of Energy for ever but that it is necessary now to protect lives and people's safety. The private licensed sector should be tightly regulated. It has a deplorable safety record. It is difficult for the mines inspectorate to keep it under control. Until we have the safeguards that are in the amendment, we shall oppose clause 4 and all its implications.
Mr. Allen McKay : I want to relate what my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) has said to health and safety and problems in small mines. I recall that on Second Reading the Minister said that the expansion of the number of people in small mines would take account of the use of modern machinery. That raises some questions.
The manager of a small mine does not need a manager's certificate ; he can have a lesser certificate. If the number of people employed in small mines is to be expanded, will the person in charge of the mine need a manager's certificate? If so, will the person who is second in charge need a qualified under-manager's certificate? If a manager is responsible for a mine for 24 hours, even when he is not there, there has to be someone in charge who is fully qualified. If private mines are to have electrical and mechanical equipment such as is used in deep mines, will
Column 245there be an electrical engineer and a mechanical engineer in charge? Will there be a second in command to look after the electrical and mechanical equipment? Will those people be qualified under the Mines and Quarries Act 1954? Will the manager and the under-manager be qualified under that Act?
If the small mines sector is to expand, we must consider carefully the safety of the people who work in the mines. There must be a proper management structure. I should like answers to the questions that I have put.
Mr. Eadie : We may be reaching the fag-end of debates on the Bill, but this is an important one. Safety is of paramount importance in the mining industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) said that he had worked for private mine owners. I started in the pits as a boy of 14 in 1934, when the safety record of private mines was deplorable. Thousands of miners have been killed during this century, most during the period of private ownership. I remember working as a boy at the coal face, and I remember some of the things that were done in the interests of producing coal at a profit. We have heard much about producing coal at a profit, but many good men were killed at that time.
To some extent, the amendment is a test. This debate on safety will be nothing compared to the debate that we shall have on the Government's proposals to privatise the coal industry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said that sanctions must be placed on safety. The Minister may think that it is a sacrifice for private mine owners to have to comply with safety regulations, but the history of safety in the mining industry has been born from sacrifice. I am old enough to remember when we had to introduce sanctions on safety in the days of private enterprise. We made great personal sacrifices. If a man was killed in the pit, what sanctions were we able to apply? We decided that if that happened no one would work in the pit on that day.
My wages when I began working in the pit were 2s 9d a day. A man on day wages received 7s 6d a day. Those fortunate enough to work at the coal face earned nine or 10 bob a day. To lose a day's wages was a great personal sacrifice, but we owed that to our colleagues. We said, "If the private coal owners are not prepared to look after our safety, our only sanction is to harm their profits." No man worked on a day when a man was killed. Unfortunately, if we consider the history of the mining industry, we are talking about not one man but dozens being killed. I remember the Gresford disaster, when 200 men were killed.
One of the great achievements when the mines were nationalised was that we stopped that slaughter in the industry. We were also able to build up the independence of the mines and quarries inspectorate, which was respected by miners. They knew that it could apply certain sanctions and that safety would prevail.
The amendment tests the Government's sincerity. Do they want to see slaughter in the industry as more private mines open? The Minister shakes his head, but we shall test his sincerity. The amendment places sanctions on people who ignore regulations. They are not fit to become owners of these mines. This is the test. Incidentally, the Government should have a close look at deregulation,