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House of Lords

Thursday, 30th November 1995.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.

The Mining Industry: Safety Levels

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied with the present level of safety in the mining industry.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are satisfied that the current enforcement and regulatory regime for the mining industry is sufficiently robust to ensure that risks to miners' health and safety from mining activities are properly controlled. The Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive, together with all sides of industry, continually strive to reduce the number of workplace accidents.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, is he aware that official figures show that there has been an increase in accident rates--they have in fact risen by 28 per cent.--since the mines were privatised? The figures also show that there have been 82 major accidents since April of this year, compared with 64 for the same period last year.

Does the Minister agree that dispensing with the post of deputy--which, as your Lordships probably know, was a key post as regards safety in the mines--has been an important contributor to that increase? Finally, is the Minister also aware that, in some pits, pressure is being put on miners not to report minor accidents, sometimes with the veiled threat of dismissal?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I shall answer first the noble Lord's last point. There is no evidence to show that that is so. Without evidence, I feel that that is not the sort of suggestion which should be made. However, as regards safety standards deteriorating with privatisation, there is no evidence to suggest that that is the case. The HSE's Inspectorate of Mines regularly monitors standards. The 1994-95 figures to March were published in the HSC's annual report on 21st November. The "all reported injury" figure for coal mines was 467. That is a reduced figure compared with that for the previous statistical year of 976.

Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, is the Minister aware that one man's life is just as precious whether it is in a privatised coal mine or a nationalised coal mine? I believe that most men in the privatised mines are safety trained and safety conscious because most of them became so experienced in the previous National Coal Board pits. However, is the Minister also aware that I am disturbed to learn that the overseers--the deputies, the certificated safety officers--may be withdrawn from privatised coal mines? Has the Minister received any assurances from the Inspectorate of Mines on that score,

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and can he say whether the reports from the mines inspectors show any dangerous trend in fatalities and casualties?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, once again, I shall deal first with the last question. No trend has been reported on fatal and serious accidents. The Government are committed to the maintenance and improvement of safety standards. The HSC continues with its mining legislation renewal programme and has appointed a committee representative of the various interests in coal mining to advise on the protection of people who work in the industry.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, can the Minister say whether the Government and the department involved keep in touch with other countries with regard to the progress that they have been making in the area, so that we might be able to help them and they, in turn, may be able to help us improve safety conditions in our pits? Does the Minister agree that that would be a sensible thing? If that task is not carried out at present, would the noble Lord please be good enough to consider it?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, of course the Health and Safety Executive and the commission follow developments around the world. The UK's record is as good as, if not better than, any other country in the world. Indeed, the unions would be the first to agree with that.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, the Minister referred to the report of the Health and Safety Commission. Is he aware that, according to that report, the number of mining inspectors has decreased and continues to decrease? Is the noble Lord also aware that, according to the last report, there has unfortunately been an increase in the number of fatalities and that cases of pneumoconiosis are also increasing and on an upward trend? Surely that is an indication that the situation cannot be as satisfactory as the Minister indicates. Therefore, does it not require some further attention along the lines indicated by my noble friend?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, it is true that the number of inspectors is reducing, but so is the number of people employed in the industry. In 1993 there were 0.2 inspectors--quite how one obtains 0.2 of an inspector, I am not sure--per 100 miners. In planning for 1996 there will be 0.23 inspectors per 100 miners, assuming the employment of 10,000 miners. We are, of course, conscious of the safety and sickness aspects of this matter. We are doing everything we can to maintain and to improve standards as best we can.

Lord Cochrane of Cults: My Lords, will my noble friend be kind enough to confirm that, in the consideration of safety, mining extends further than coal mining?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, that is absolutely true. However, this Question was directed to coal mining.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, if the Minister felt that I was making an allegation with regard to veiled threats, with great respect to him he ought to think more deeply before giving the kind of answer that he did. In that regard, would the Minister or the Government consider as a matter of urgency convening meetings with

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the unions concerned, who will provide not only the evidence we have discussed but much more? Will the Minister reply to the point which is of some importance; namely, the fact that deputies are no longer employed in the pits, and they are the key safety figures? I repeat my question. Does not the Minister think that that is an important contributory factor in the increase in accidents?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I shall write to the noble Lord on the matter of deputies. However, I do not accept that the number of accidents is increasing. There is no evidence to suggest that that is the case.

Gas Supply Industry: Competition

3.15 p.m.

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress is being made regarding the introduction of pilot schemes for competition in the gas industry.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, preparations are continuing for the first pilot phase of competition in gas supply to domestic consumers which it is intended will commence in the South-West on 1st April 1996. The Government are discussing the detailed arrangements for this with the Director General of Gas Supply and with the industry.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, given that one potential competitor in the South-West of England has indicated that it would be possible to reduce household gas prices by 15 per cent., will the Government give an assurance that they will not allow British Gas to drag its heels? Will the Government ensure that competition will be introduced in the South-West and other areas as soon as is possible?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I am delighted to see the noble Lord has converted to Conservative principles. British Gas is not dragging its feet. This is a major task involving the introduction of computer systems and supporting contractual and administrative arrangements. British Gas is committed to achieving this programme and it is working hard to achieve it. As noble Lords would expect, the DTI and Ofgas monitor its progress and discuss that with the company. The target date is 1st April.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I believe the noble Lord has his history the wrong way round. It was the Government who privatised the gas industry as a monolithic monopoly. That was vigorously opposed by noble Lords on these Benches. Is he not aware that the passage of the recent Gas Bill, which at long last brought potential competition into the consumer market, was strongly supported by noble Lords on these Benches, notably by myself? That leads eventually to my question, which is the following. What the noble Lord said in answer to my noble friend was heartening. I take it the noble Lord is saying there is no slippage whatsoever in the programme which will lead both to the first pilot schemes and then quickly after that to the introduction more broadly of competition in the domestic gas market. Can the noble

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Lord reassure your Lordships that, so far as the Government are aware, at this moment there are no delays as regards the introduction of competition?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, we are widening out the gas industry. We intend the framework to be in place for domestic consumers in the South-West to have a choice of supplier on 1st April. We are currently examining with Ofgas and the industry the technical details and timings of how customers' billings will change between the two suppliers. We are still on target for 1st April.

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