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Column 246about which I am sure that my hon. Friends will talk later. It will make it easier for private owners to operate mines in relation to the Mines and Quarries Act 1954.
I feel emotional about this subject, because some of my family have been killed in the pits. If I do nothing else tonight, I owe it to them to make this contribution to the debate.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell : It has been well documented on Second Reading and in Committee that the private mining sector has an appalling record on safety. I said in Committee, when we were debating raising the manpower in private pits from 30 to 150, that I foresaw disaster occurring somewhere in the mines because of the attitude of some private mine owners. I gave examples of many incidents that were described by mineworkers. Some were horror stories that would make one's hair stand on end if one were a miner working in the British coal industry.
I want to illustrate why private mine owners should be severely watched when they open a mine. I want to quote from the case of a 51-year-old fellow who was killed at the Robin Rock pit in Northumberland. It emerged at the inquest that
"electrical equipment at this mine had been poorly maintained". Danger signs had apparently been seen for three weeks beforehand. An electrical junction box had caught fire, and sparks and smoke had come from it. Fortunately, the men managed to get out of the pit in time. Any fire in a mine is a reportable offence to the mines and quarries inspectorate, but on that occasion, the mine owners did not inform the inspectorate. Apparently they thought that as everyone had got out of the pit, they need not report it.
The same thing happened three or four weeks later. The box caught fire and smoke came out. Unfortunately, one of the old fellows did not make it and was suffocated by the smoke. The three brothers who owned the mine were prosecuted, and each was fined £1,000. When they were asked at the inquest whether they had an electrical engineer, they replied, "No." When they were asked whether they had an electrician, they said that they did. When they were asked what his qualifications were, they said that he had served his time at another colliery as a mining apprentice.
We have had a great debate. Safety in the mines is an emotive subject and I am sure that we shall return to it. With my 20-odd years' experience of the mines, I ask the Minister seriously to consider new laws for the private mines. He--not the Opposition, who hope to win in the Lobby--is increasing the private mines. The responsibility will lie on the Minister's head. I shall never let him forget what I have said when there is a disaster in the private mines after the level of manpower is raised from 30 to 150.
Mr. Hardy : Given the position adopted by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), I should be foolish to seek to make a long speech. Nevertheless, it is appropriate that I should remind the House that I am sponsored by the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, the trade union that represents those employed underground in the British coal mining industry, who have a statutory responsibility for safety. Let us leave aside for a moment all questions of politics and dogma. NACODS is deeply concerned about the extension of private mining. It is the considered view of the NACODS leadership--people who have a great deal of
Column 247experience--that the Government's proposals will lead to more people being killed and maimed. That must surely be a serious matter. I know that we shall not persuade the Government to withdraw the proposal, but although the Minister has only just taken office, he is aware of the points that we have made concerning the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908--a subject to which I referred twice in Committee. That Act is not being enforced. The Government have already had several weeks in which to ensure that the Act was being enforced. I want an assurance from the Minister that no private mine will be allowed to operate under present arrangements or in future unless that regulation has been put into practice. This is another example of the law being observed when the Government want it to be observed because it suits them. In this case, common sense and the need to save limbs and lives make it essential to ensure that the provision is put into effect without further delay.
I realise that Conservative Members may feel that people of my generation-- my hon. Friends the Members for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) and for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes)--speak with some bias on these matters because of our experience in the privatised coal industry. Conservative Members, who have never had such experience, are probably justified in questioning our views.
I wish to outline briefly my own experience both of present-day technology in the mining industry and of licensed mines in Britain. In my experience, the American coalfield, which as we all know is privatised, does not bear comparison with the British coalfield and its industry. I can say to the House with all sincerity that the American coal mines that I have been down are the most unsafe that I have ever visited in all my experience--since the age of 14--in the mining industry.
I have been down American mines--with ladies working in them, incidentally- -where, on reaching the end of a coal face, my party has had to be brought back by what we in this country call a deputy. The normal system in this country is to go through one roadway on to the coalface and then through another roadway at the end of the coalface, which is called the return. In America we got to the end of the face and had to turn back.
Conservative Members who accompanied us on that trip did not take exception, because they did not realise what was happening. We had to be brought back the length of the face because there was no other way out. There was only one way in and out. That is privatisation : the firm was saving the expense of a second roadway. I have never before seen such unsafe conditions. It was the only time that I have ever experienced fear in a coal mine.
The conditions in private mines in this country were drawn to the attention of the House by the 28 January 1987 report of the Select Committee on Energy. Paragraph 171 states :
"Other operators in the industry as well as BC have a responsibility to safeguard their workers' safety. Figures given to us show that 1 in 100 workers in the private deep mines suffered a fatal or major injury in 1985- 86, compared with 1 in 187 in BC's pits."
Column 248That accident rate is a fact. The accident rate in private mines in this country was nearly double the rate in British Coal's mines. Incidentally, only 40 per cent. of American mines are unionised, and only those mines record accidents. Their accident figures are 2.5 per cent. to 4 per cent. higher than British Coal's.
It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
That, at this day's sitting, the Coal Industry Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.-- [Mr. Lightbown.] Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
Mr. Lofthouse : I challenge any hon. Member to produce accident figures relating to any country that operates a private mining sector and compare them with British Coal's figures. I should be very surprised if an hon. Member can do that.
I well remember on 19 December 1939 going down a big hole in the ground in Featherstone in West Yorkshire. I was a 14-year-old boy at the time. I saw conditions in those days that were not fit for people to work in. I saw circumstances in which men were criminally killed because there were no roof supports for protection. Within three months of my going down that mine, driving a pony, I arrived at the coal face one morning and saw a man lying dead because he had had nothing to support himself with. The cemetery at Featherstone in Yorkshire is full of such men.
Only in recent times, Mr. Kenneth Moses, who was a technical director of British Coal and, I suppose, can be recognised as one of the senior mining engineers in the country, was questioned by the Select Committee. I asked :
"How do you explain the accident rate in the private pits in this country compared with British Coal?"
Mr. Moses replied :
"Well, because we are using two entirely different technologies." He can say that again.
"The private pits are using the technology we were using in 1947, we are using highly mechanised modernised technology, and the way in which we have reduced accidents is, in fact, by the application of mining engineering technology."
Mr. Moses conceded that the high accident rate in private mines in this country was because we were mining coal with pre-1947 technology.
It is one thing to organise and control a mine with 30 men with pre-1947 technology, but it is another thing to expand to 150 men without that technology. Small mines will not be able to maintain British Coal's safety record, because the capital development which previously enabled British Coal to supply mechanisation for coal faces and so on will not exist. The Bill, which extends the number of men in private mines, will, as sure as night follows day, create a situation in which men in the mines will be in much more danger than their British Coal counterparts.
One can say, "Well, they are protected by the inspectorate." It is true that the inspectorate visits the mines and that the mine owners must carry out the inspector's instructions. However, I remind the Secretary of State and the House that it is the self-same inspectorate that is inspecting the private mines now that is inspecting British Coal mines, yet the accident record in private mines has nearly doubled. It is not an argument for being protected by the inspectorate.
Column 249I hope that these arguments and the personal experiences that have been put to the Secretary of State tonight will lead him to consider--and, I hope, concede--this modest amendment.
Mr. Wakeham : It has been a short and important debate. I had been, and am, going to quote exactly the same remarks that were made in the Select Committee report by Ken Moses, as were quoted by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), but perhaps towards the end of the debate we were nearer to getting a better understanding of the problems. Of course I understand the sincerity, the feelings and the passions that are raised by safety questions and by history. I hope that hon. Members will hear what I have to say, which I claim modestly to be stated with as much sincerity as that with which they made their remarks.
The Opposition's position on the licensing of mines seems to remain the same as that stated in their comments that were attached to the end of the Select Committee on Energy's 1986-87 report into the coal industry. They believe that the manpower limit should remain at the levels set in 1946. In other words, they wish to condemn private sector mineworkers to the working methods and the safety levels of the 1940s. On the other hand, we believe that the most effective way of making mines safer for underground workers is through mechanisation.
This is borne out by British Coal's own experience. Mr. Ken Moses, British Coal's technology director, pointed out recently when giving evidence to the Select Committee on Energy--in exactly the same piece of evidence quoted by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford--that the private pits are using the technology of 1947 and that British Coal is not. He said that British Coal has improved the accident record
"by the application of mining engineering technology."
I believe that to be absolutely right. It is the reason for our wish to increase manning levels in the licensed sector. I have no doubt that the out-of-date working practices that licensed mines are currently forced to use because of their size prevents them from improving their safety standards. I accept that the accident rate at licensed mines does not compare favourably with that at British Coal's mines, but that is because their mining practices have not kept pace with technological developments. [Interruption.] We heard what Opposition Members had to say, so I think that I should be allowed to speak.
The reports of the mines and quarries inspectorate on accidents in the licensed mines sector suggest that many of the fatal accidents reported would not have happened had modern mechanised group support and conveyance systems been employed. The investment required for that can be generated only by mines that are larger than the existing ones. The need to increase productivity by multi-shift working or by working two faces means that more men are needed, which means more mining jobs--jobs in areas where they are needed.
Of course we wish to see improvements in licensed mine safety. We believe that the improvement in the manpower limit will enable modern, mechanised and, above all, safer pits to be developed in the licensed sector.
The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and others have raised with me the question of the numbers of men employed in licensed mines. I shall do my best to give an answer, but it is not the clearest answer that I have ever given in my life. However, I repeat that I shall do my best.
Column 250The hon. Member for Wentworth asked about the exact number of people employed in licensed mines and related that to the provisions of the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908. I should make it clear that the 1908 Act required that a register be kept of persons going below ground and returning to the surface, so that a record is kept of the hours spent below ground. It may be a useful guide to the numbers of persons employed in the mine, but it is not a register of persons employed ; nor has it ever been that.
As I have said, the hon. Member for Wentworth was also most concerned to have a cut-and-dried answer to his question about the numbers of people employed in licensed mines. I am sorry that I cannot give a precise answer to that question. The work force in licensed mines changes frequently. Unlike for British Coal's mines, there is no central organisation to collect figures.
Not all licensed mines belong to the Federation of Small Mines of Great Britain. Her Majesty's mines and quarries inspectorate makes inquiries to ensure that the numbers employed at the mine and the qualifications of officials are consistent with the requirements of the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 and associated legislation. The inspectorate does not keep detailed records of the numbers employed at each mine.
As the licensing authority for private coal mines, British Coal must satisfy itself that the mining plans submitted with a licensed application could be undertaken by 30 men or fewer. Once the mine is in operation, it is for the owner to ensure that he complies with the requirements of the licence. British Coal will have to consider carefully whether a licence should be revoked at a pit where it is discovered that there has been an infringement of the licensing agreement.
The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) asked about the qualifications of managers. I can answer his question simply. The basic principle is that the management qualifications required for a given size of mine are the same for a licensed mine as for a British Coal mine. A manager would require a first-class certificate at a mine employing more than 30 people.
Mr. Allen McKay : I accept that, but is the Secretary of State saying that there will be 150 men per shift over three shifts? If there are 150 men per shift, a structure of under-managers will be needed too.
Mr. Wakeham : I shall not go further than what I said, because that is what I was advised. The same regulations, under the same Act, will apply whether the mine is a private licensed mine or a British Coal mine.
The amendment was not referred to very often in the debate. I recognise the importance of the issues with which it deals. I recognise that mine safety must be paramount. I agree that mines should be run by those fitted to do so. It would be inappropriate to use the Bill to impose mandatory sanctions on owners for offences not directly related to its subject. The safety regulations covering the mining industry are part of the heath and safety at work legislation.
The amendment does not distinguish sufficiently between serious and trivial offences. It would be iniquitous to put a company out of business for committing a relatively minor misdemeanour. I recognise the force of the argument behind the amendments. The most effective and proper way to deal with the issue is through the licensing process, not legislation. That is precisely how we deal with
Column 251the problem in licensing North Sea oil operations, where safety is equally vital. The statutes covering those licences do not contain requirements similar to those in the amendment, but applicants' safety records are taken into account in the licensing process. I shall draw the attention of British Coal to what has been said and ask it to take into account any criminal record of the mine manager or owner in any application for a licence or renewal of a licence. I cannot accept the amendment, although I understand the reasons for it.
Mr. Barron : I am dissatisfied with the Secretary of State's explanation, as I am sure many of my hon. Friends are. He argued that mechanisation was the answer. No Opposition Member or anyone in the mining industry would disagree with that. He talked about running two faces of a coal mine with a limit of 150. But when Marine colliery in south Wales was mothballed, Mr. Crispian Hotson of Ryan International said that 150 would not be adequate to run such a colliery with fewer than three coal faces.
The Minister's argument does not stand up. At no stage since the introduction of the Bill have the Government ever spoken to British Coal, which issues the licences and should police that sector, about the implications of clause 4 and raising the figure from 30 to 150. We still do not know how many people work in the private licensed sector. We have had three different figures in the three weeks that the Bill has been considered in Committee. The Minister says that the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908, which we and everybody else, including the inspectors, believed gave the number, as a useful guide. But that is not good enough when people are working in the same environment that existed pre-1947, when three or four coal miners were killed every day in British coal mines. We cannot accept an extension of that.
At least 18 counties in Britain, sadly not all with Labour Members of Parliament, have private mines or plan to have private mines. Yet Conservative Members sit in silence when we are debating a measure which will increase fivefold the number of people who can work in private mines.
We do not accept all the Minister's arguments about mechanisation, because that is limited by the number in the Bill. I am not arguing for more. We do not accept that there is any regulation at present of the licensed mine sector ; hence the present number of deaths and injuries. Over the past 10 years, there have been nine prosecutions under the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 in the private sector and not one in British Coal mines during the past 10 years. Therefore, the people who work in the private sector now, and who will do so in future, need the protection that the amendment gives, and we shall put it to the vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 149, Noes 214.
Division No. 38] [10.17 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Beith, A. J.
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Column 252Bermingham, Gerald
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)
Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S)
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Mo n)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Marek, Dr John
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Moonie, Dr Lewis