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David Taylor: That is not the sort of diversification that I had mind, and I will certainly raise the matter with the MRS.

The growing range of emergency escape and rescue services provided by the MRS offers an alternative source of income that benefits not only the company, but society as a whole. The Government have provided financial assistance to the MRS to the tune of £2.5 million in each of the past two years, but that is not the whole picture. The Minister for Energy, who is unable to respond today, has said:

The payments from the Coal Authority to the MRS have gone back to the mining companies, which are thereby assisted by the Coal Authority in that regard. It is a source of regret to the MRS, its staff and its many supporters that the £2.5 million payments from the Coal Authority to itself via the MRS have been the extent of a Labour Government's financial help to a service that is increasingly needed beyond the shrinking confines of its industrial origins. The MRS only ever budgets to break even and still performs its statutory duties at the remaining deep coal mines in the UK to a high standard. Although the Government have helped to prolong the existence of some of the remaining pits by making those payments from the Coal Authority to the MRS over the
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past two years, I feel that they should make a continued further contribution to secure the continued existence of the MRS.The long-term strategic aims of the company are working, and it is anticipated that its continued diversification will reduce net costs and enable it to become less reliant on the UK deep coal mine industry. Yet member companies running underground coal mines in the UK continue to have access to a fully functioning and cost-effective emergency escape and rescue capability.

Consolidation of the role of the MRS in the provision of escape and rescue emergency services in the mining sector has been achieved in the form of a three-year contract with the Coal Authority. The deal is to provide 24/7 emergency response call-out for surface hazards associated with legacy coal mining activities. A year into the contract, the MRS is meeting stringent service delivery targets and creating an excellent working relationship with Coal Authority representatives. During the past year, the MRS has successfully bid for several large training contracts in mining and non-mining sectors. The outsourcing of health and safety training requirements has benefited it, and the acquisition and use of mobile training facilities has increased its competitiveness.

Many Members have been consistent advocates for the MRS since 1996 and are well aware, often through the bitter industrial experiences of their communities, of the origin of the skills that it has honed so well for a broader search and rescue application. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) and for Elmet (Colin Burgon), who are both present, and to others who have intervened.

Mr. Meale: As my hon. Friend well knows, I am the Member of Parliament for Mansfield. In the 18 or 19 years for which I have been a Member, the MRS has been in contact with my office on no occasion other than the recent case that I mentioned. When I inquired of other Members, they said that they have had no personal one-to-one communications with it. I wanted to put that right.

David Taylor: I am happy for my hon. Friend to do that. I know that he has recently asked questions about the future of the MRS.

Those Members are rightly proud of, and reassured by, their constituencies being bases for the MRS, and have consistently lobbied the Government on its behalf.

So what of the future? Industrial accidents on the awful scale seen yesterday at the Dongfeng mine in north-east China may be regarded as a thing of the past in this country, but the skills, knowledge and expertise developed first by the British Coal Corporation and continued by the MRS have the potential to be of crucial benefit in a wide range of disastrous circumstances in many parts of the world.

Our industrial history has bequeathed us an exceptional search and rescue service that we risk losing at a time when we face a distinct threat from our past—international terrorism. That is most likely to strike in urban areas, as the appalling events in parts of London on 7 July this year tragically confirmed, and the MRS is the only organisation adapted purely to the needs of emergency search, rescue and escape situations. We cannot afford to lose those skills at this time.
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We have come a long way since the heroic efforts of Charles Clamp and the many other miners who perished trying to save lives that some pit owners disdained as mere numbers. I hope that we will hear some recognition from the Minister of the Government's duty to recognise the past legacy, current value and future potential represented by the MRS. Some companies appoint themselves to a tier of the emergency services in their advertising. The MRS can legitimately claim that through its training and development of a growing number of fire and rescue service staff across the UK. As my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet said, that suggests a continued public sector involvement. No fanfare is required, just Government funding to meet the present shortfall if we are to continue to benefit in the medium term from the skills, courage and professionalism of the MRS, to which all Members here would pay tribute.

10.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on securing an important debate. I thank him, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) for Elmet (Colin Burgon) and for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) for their contributions. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire for understanding why my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy is not replying to the debate.

It goes without saying that underground coal and other mining operations take place in highly hazardous conditions. A fire or explosion underground can produce large quantities of carbon monoxide and other noxious gases. Old workings and mine waste can release asphyxiating fumes. Serious machinery or transport accidents can also occur. However, for me, the most harrowing possibility is a roof fall that leaves miners trapped underground, perhaps miles from the safety of the pithead.

Despite those ever-present dangers, I am glad to say that the coal mining industry's recent safety record in this country is excellent. There has been one fatality this millennium and only 53 major injuries occurred in 2004–05. Of course, that detracts neither from the fact that it is vital for mine operators to have access to the specialist underground rescue services to respond to emergencies on the thankfully rare occasions that they occur, nor from the courage and dedication of those whose business is to provide those services.

In the United Kingdom, local authority emergency services generally deal with fires, explosions and gas leaks on the surface in residential, commercial and industrial premises. However, they do not have the specialist skills and experience necessary to cope with underground emergencies, which require specialised breathing apparatus and other equipment, and important specialist training.

Mines rescue services are principally relevant to the deep mine coal industry. However, other underground mines such as salt, gypsum, stone, potash and storage
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mines may also use them. In addition, their services may on occasion be called on to rescue members of the public from abandoned mine workings, culverts and confined spaces.

Against that background, the Escape and Rescue from Mines Regulations 1995 provide the current legislative framework for mines rescue in the UK. Under the regulations, owners of all types of mine must make what are termed "effective arrangements" for the rescue of persons operating below ground. However, the owners of coal mines in particular must ensure that sufficient trained and fully equipped rescue team members are available as required to provide a continuous 24-hour rescue service. To that end, coal mine operators must participate in a Government-approved mines rescue scheme.

The scheme requires: the maintenance of an adequate pool of full and part-time rescue workers; the operation of a common command structure with suitably qualified and competent rescue offices to supervise the training and operation of rescue teams; the maintenance of regional mines rescue stations at suitable locations, with common communication systems; suitable equipment that is common throughout the country; similar training for all rescue personnel, and the co-ordination of arrangements for mutual assistance between members in an emergency situation at any member's mine.

As we all know, privatisation of the coal mining industry in 1994 led to the creation of several new deep-mine owners. In the 1993 White Paper "The Prospects for Coal", the Government of the day clearly reaffirmed a commitment to ensuring that health and safety standards would be maintained after privatisation. The document states:

The maintenance of effective mines rescue provision clearly was, and continues to be a vital part of that equation.

For a period following its effective withdrawal from mining, British Coal provided to its successor deep-mine operators a fully trained mines rescue service, which, at the time, numbered around 100 full-time and 500 part-time rescue workers. In 1996, the assets, employees and liabilities of British Coal's mines rescue operation were transferred to a stand-alone company. Mines Rescue Service Ltd. has fulfilled the requirements of the statutory scheme ever since.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire said, Mines Rescue Service Ltd. operates from headquarters in Mansfield in Nottinghamshire and from a network of rescue stations in the proximity of the remaining deep mines, whose operators, principally UK Coal and Tower colliery, finance the service by means of a production levy, currently standing at 16p per tonne.

In 2002, the Health and Safety Executive commissioned an examination of alternative structures for the provision of mines rescue arrangements in Great Britain and to assess their relative merits against credible scenarios for the future coal mining industry.
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The resultant report concluded that, from a structural perspective, the existing arrangements provided the most flexible and lowest cost means of ensuring rescue cover to both large and small mine operators.

However, it would be remiss of me if I did not acknowledge that, in examining the funding aspects of the service, the 2002 report propounded several alternatives to the status quo, recognising the further contraction in the industry that had taken place since the service's creation. It suggested that there were cogent arguments for partial or total Government funding. In doing so, it noted that, in other countries with active deep mine coal industries, Governments provided funding or at least a subsidy. International comparisons suggested that it was common for operators to contribute to the funding of mines rescue provision up to a specified limit, and for the balance to be met centrally. Such a system obviously provides operators with greater certainty that they will be insulated against cost escalation.

We were sufficiently persuaded by the case for Government assistance when, in 2003, we were considering how best to formulate a package of support for the coal sector. The principal element of what emerged was, of course, the coal investment aid scheme, from which we have awarded more than £58 million to deep-mine projects. At the same time, we pledged to endeavour to provide funding for the MRS over the three-year period from 2003 to 2006. However, finding those funds was always going to be an uphill struggle. None the less, I am glad to say that last year and the year before, our efforts were successful, thanks to the Coal Authority.

The authority, as most hon. Members will know, is the industry's licensing body and the inheritor of much of the environmental legacy of past mining. Some of its functions are self-financing but, for the others, it receives grant-in-aid funding from my Department. As well as inheriting a raft of liabilities, the authority was heir to a good deal of former British Coal land and property, and it has been disposing of this over the years. In both 2003–04 and 2004–05, we allowed the authority to direct windfall gains on property sales towards the MRS. The £2.5 million paid in each of those years enabled the service to reimburse deep-mine operators for the levy payments that they had made over the period. Regrettably, however, it looks highly unlikely that we will be in a position to repeat the process this year or in the future.

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