§ 3.48 p.m.
§ Mr. David Grenfell
I beg to move,That this House views with deep concern the conditions revealed by the inquiry into the Gresford Colliery explosion in which 265 lives were lost, and is of opinion that grave responsibility rests upon the country and Parliament to prevent such disasters by adopting immediate and effective measures for ensuring that the industry is carried on under conditions of maximum safety.The House to-day assumes the duty which rightly falls upon Parliament in its concern for the welfare and safety of the citizens of this realm. In ordinary times we are privileged to be allowed to follow our occupations in comparative safety. Happily in this country we are free from calamities from the forces of nature, but we have not yet won exemption or immunity from special risks in many of our important industries. In the Debate 10 days ago on the subject of mining the hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) reminded the House that in the last 11 years more than 11,000 men had lost their lives in the hidden depths of our coal mines. He also cited the figure of nearly 2,000,000 persons who have been the victims of notifiable accidents in that same period.
Danger always lurks down below. In the extraction of coal men contend against darkness, noxious gases and the immense pressure of rock and stone which overlie the coal seams. The science of mining involves the lighting, ventilation, and support of the spaces from which coal is extracted and sent to the surface. The Mines Department represented in this House by the Secretary for Mines is responsible for the administration of the laws and regulations and for informing the House on all matters arising therefrom. Thus we have to-day brought before us the history of one of the most appalling occurrences of the post-war period. On a Saturday morning nearly two and a-half years ago, the country was staggered to hear the news of an explosion at Gresford Colliery and a wave of public sympathy arose throughout the land, carrying with it the kindest and most generous feelings of our people. An urgent demand for an explanation of the catastrophe reached this House. Questions were directed to the Mines Department and to the Government, as a result of which the Secretary for Mines immediately 1850 appointed a Commission to inquire into the causes and circumstances of the explosion. That Commission sat almost continuously from 5th October, 1934, to the middle of December, in a tedious examination lasting 28 days which threw an enormous strain upon the Commissioner and upon all those who took part in the inquiry.
I may here pay a tribute to the skill and patience of the Commissioner and his two assessors. I do not comment now upon the conclusions. I should also like to acknowledge the exceptionally valuable services rendered by the hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) and the hon. Member for Kingswinford (Mr. A. Henderson) and other counsel who assisted in the examination of witnesses. There was considerable difficulty in collecting evidence from the men who worked in this area, and it must be remembered that the mine became inaccessible on the day following the explosion. On 23rd September the mine was, and is still, inaccessible. A good deal of controversy has arisen regarding the possibility of making an inspection on the spot of the disaster itself. The owners have refused permission. They declare that the mine is not safe. The Cornmissioner at one time appeared to be willing to enter the sealed area, and I think he must have felt in some difficulty from his dual position as Commissioner responsible for the inquiry and as Chief Inspector of Mines responsible for the staffs working under him. But it is true, and I must comment upon it, that the owners' representatives have been inside. They took the stoppings down and, accompanied by experts of the Mines Department, went to the Clutch and to a portion of the mine to which entry has been denied to the miners' representatives. The owners have been obdurate, and have declared that it is not safe to restore ventilation to this part of the mine. The miners' representatives have never agreed, and have always demanded consent to enter and inspect the area affected by the explosion.
Failing inspection, inquiries were confined necessarily to witnesses. Some were called by the colliery company, some by the North Wales Miners' Federation, and some by the Mines Department; 189 witnesses altogether were called. The constitution of the court and the list of witnesses are given in the report. I think 1851 the House is indebted to the witnesses who came forward. It is not always an easy matter for men to give evidence regarding the conditions in the mine where they are working, and where they hope to get employment in the future. I think we should pay homage to the courage of those men who came forward and spoke the truth as they believed, and as they knew it. I think, also, we should congratulate the survivors who gave evidence, and who described so vividly the circumstances following the explosion and the conditions under which they were able to make their escape. I should also like, on behalf of the House, to thank the rescuers who came from the adjoining mines to help, with the tragic loss of three lives.
The report contains much technical matter and detail, and I am sure it is not easy for a non-mining member to follow. I should like, if I may, to convey to the House a general picture of the area with which we are concerned to-day. To begin with, the Dennis shaft is out of sight, half a mile away beyond the Clutch; the latter we shall locate at the entrance to this Chamber we must assume. It lies at a depth of over 2,200 feet from the surface. It is the terminus of the Dennis intake airway, and is the beginning of the main haulage and ventilation shaft which serves the district. There are four working districts in this area. The first on the left is known as 20's and 61's, and occupies a space which might be represented by the seats occupied by hon. Members below the Gangway on the Government side of the House. In this district, the 20's and 61's, operations were conducted in the old-fashioned manner of cutting coal by hand, with little expenditure of explosives. In this district 249 men were employed in three shafts, and they produced an average weekly output of 1,651 tons, which works out at an average of 6.6 tons per man per week. I quote these figures, because I think they will become important in a later examination of the case.
On the night of the explosion there were 64 men at work in 20's and 61's. The next district we come to, still on the left hand side of the main intake road, is a district known as 109's, which may be said to occupy the position of the seats behind the Government Front Bench; 167 1852 men were at work here. They produced, under great difficulties, natural handicaps and handicaps due to bad organisation, an average weekly output of 813 tons, which works out at an average per person of only 4.6 tons. There is a district, a continuation of the main 142's Dip, which goes right behind what I might describe as Mr. Speaker's Chair and is known as 95's and 24's, dipping steadily the whole way and reaching a depth from the surface of 2,600 feet. Hon. Members will know that at a depth of 2,600 feet the natural temperature of the strata or the ground would rise to about 94 or 95 degrees Fahrenheit—a very warm place indeed, as all the evidence at the inquiry shows.
Then we come to a district known as 14's, which may be represented by the section of the House that is behind me. There 128 men were employed and the output was 1,617 tons per week, or an average per man of 12.6 tons, twice as much as the output produced in 20's and 65's and nearly three times as much as the output produced in 109's. On the night of the explosion 51 men were at work in this place, or 11 more in number than the average who worked there in the previous week on the same shift. I state that because additional men had come back to work on the night of the disaster, men who had worked the previous day, the previous afternoon, and were brought back to work overtime on the night of the disaster. We next come to a district called 29's, which would occupy the position represented by the benches on this side of the House below the Gangway. There were 162 men employed there and they produced 1,340 tons weekly, an average of 8.3 tons per person per week. On the night of the disaster there was a night shift of 89 persons, which is 39 in excess of the average number in the preceding week. You have, therefore, in the different districts a large proportion of men who had worked the previous day and were working overtime when they met their doom.
Before I attempt to criticise, let me say that I sat throughout the inquiry. I listened to almost every word, but I spoke not one word myself. I heard almost every word uttered by all the witnesses. Without undue presumption I wish to submit a general condemnation of the lay-out of all these districts, and 1853 to say that this Dennis area was unworkable and had been unworkable for a long time before the explosion. Sir Henry Walker lends his great experience and authority to this statement. He does not make his condemnation as sweeping as mine, but he has in his report referred to the unfit condition and has declared that some part of this pit should have been stopped long ago. But he does not include 20's and 61's in his condemnation. I must do so. I am not convinced that the persons employed in that district had not two ways of egress so as to comply with Section 36 (3) of the Coal Mines Act. The return airway from the last place in 20'S was a mile long and had been standing for many years without means of removing any falls of stone that may have occurred in the period. All practical miners know that an airway in that condition soon contracts.
There are two independent witnesses to support me in the view that I take. There is first of all Mr. Williams, one of the rescue brigade. On the 28th day of the inquiry, in reply to question 41,086, he described how he was instructed by Mr. Harold Thomas to go down the 20'S return airway, as there might be some men lying down there. Then Mr. Williams told a story of how he went down this dipping road with the whole of his workmates, the rescue men, how he led them as their leader, and how he had to crawl along. He describes a place where the dimensions of the road were 3 feet by 3 feet. Still further down he got so far that it was quite impossible to go any further and he signalled to the men behind and told them they must not follow because it was impossible to proceed. He said that he could not turn round, and he had to leave the place by going backward until he got to his men. Then he made signs that they must follow him and he painfully described the death of his three comrades in these tragic circumstances.
I shall also quote Mr. Benson, one of His Majesty's inspectors, who went down this roadway a year later and took a series of measurements on the way down. He said he came to a point not very far beyond the point where Mr. Williams had been compelled to retreat and he measured the height and found it was 2 feet 2 inches. I believe the evidence of these independent witnesses; I much prefer to take their evidence to the evidence of 1854 those people who declared throughout the inquiry, in monotonous repetition, that in all the return airways of the districts there was one low place, 4 feet 6 inches high. Some of us who know something about mines were not impressed nevertheless. It is alarming to see how frequently that phrase reappears in the evidence.
The law requires three essential conditions for the protection of persons working in coal mines. The first is that they shall be supplied with adequate ventilation to make the air breathable and prevent the ignition of inflammable gas or injury from noxious gases of any kind. The second is that there shall be proper support of the roof and sides in places where mineral has been extracted. The third is that at least two ways shall be available so that if one becomes closed or inaccessible another way to safety is assured. In none of these districts where these men now lie were the conditions satisfactory, judged by these standards. Mr. Joseph Jones, one of the Commissioners, has specified a number of breaches of the law by certain persons. I do not think I am expected to make charges against any individuals to-day. There is a form of procedure by which any allegation against individuals can be tested. I take the word of Sir Henry Walker, who declared in effect, on page 63 of the report, that 14's, 29's, 95's and 24's were not in a fit condition and should have been stopped. It is not possible to comment upon this report without expressing serious disquiet about the whole machinery of supervision and inspection which Parliament has been building up for nearly 100 years.
I now refer to the question of ventilation. One glance at this plan by any decent minded man is enough to show that this part of the mine was not being properly ventilated. It has been said by Mr. John Brass, one of the Commissioners, that this was not a gassy mine. I need only refer to the evidence quoted by Sir Henry Walker, which showed that gas had been about the faces in 14's, 109's and 95's when the electric current was on and the machinery in motion. Everyone knew of the gas, if we except, at their own request, the mine manager and mine inspectors, who had not made a proper inspection of the Dennis section for more than a year before the explosion. Some doubt has been cast upon the truth of the workmen witnesses. I do not 1855 know why they should be disbelieved, in view of the evidence, in view of the fact of the explosion itself, and the replies given by the firemen on pages 43 to 49 of the report—six pages quoted by the Commissioner, which I shall not trouble to read, for it would take too long. It is there in the report. Six pages show the kind of evidence to which he and others listened in painful silence.
Perhaps the most conclusive evidence on this point came out quite unexpectedly on the 26th day of the inquiry, when the company produced a number of workmen witnesses to speak as to various operations that they performed. On that day the hon. Member for Kingswinford was acting in the absence of his leader, and after a number of witnesses of less experience there came into the witness-box a middle-aged man, who had been working in 14's and for some unaccountable reason had not previously been called. He was well spoken, of good appearance and perfect demeanour. He gave evidence in reply to Mr. Shawcross, counsel for the owners. I will read this evidence, by Mr. Thomas Lloyd, of Rhosddu, on the 26th day of the inquiry. It is not in the Report. In reply to Mr. Shawcross, Question 37,198, he said he had been employed in the Dennis Area for seven years and had been working 14's airway since January. He said that ventilation was very good, only it was warm. In reply to Mr. Henderson he said, Question 37,234:Q. It is warm there?—Yes, it was warm. The ventilation was very good there, but it was warm.Then he said, he had a conversation with Mr. Edward Matthews since the explosion and remembered what he said to him.He told me at first that gas had come down from the top end for 60 yards down the new timber road, and I said, 'If that is the case then I said there must be something happened somewhere for it to come down there. There is something happened in the wind road or something like that.'In reply to Mr. Hall he said:I have found some gas in Gresford in examining, but not as a repairer—as an old collier.He was followed by a slightly younger man named Joseph Owens, of Acton Park. In reply to Mr. Shawcross, counsel for the company, he said he had been employed in the Dennis area seven years, that the ventilation was warm but good. 1856There was a good draught. Never told that gas had been found in Scouring—never a word.He was asked:Q. Were you working in the air road the morning before the disaster?The answer was:Yes, I had a conversation with Thomas the fireman. I asked for an electric lamp. He wanted to get a hose pipe out. I asked for an electric lamp because the other lamps would not light.Mr. Henderson asked:Which other lamp?and the answer was:The flame lamp.While this examination was going on, a voice from the body of the court called out:Tell the truth man.Mr. Owen then replied to the next question:Which lamp would not light?by saying:There was gas there.Mr. Henderson asked:There was gas there?and the reply was:Yes, there was gas there.Mr. Henderson then said:I want to know which wind road you are talking about where you say there was gas the day before the disaster.Mr. Shawcross, counsel for the company, intervened:He said it was not a wind road,and the witness said:It was not the day before the accident.The Commissioner was rather disturbed by the course of the evidence, and tried to clear up the question of date. Then the answer came:I will tell you when it was—before the September fall. I had known there was gas in this road a few weeks previous.Mr. Joseph Hall then asked:Can you surely say that the fireman knew there was a quantity of gas in that old airway at the time he sent you in with that electric torch or lamp?and the answer was:He was with me.Then the fireman said to Mr. Joseph Hall:I would never do such a foolish thing again.1857 In answer to a question put by Mr. Charlton, the Mines Inspector, Mr. Owen said:It was the return airway. Before the fall the ventilation used to go round and down this old road.Then the Commissioner said:I do not understand this. You have just told Mr. Charlton that you could come down the face in the airway to the place where this hosepipe was.The answer was:With the flame lamp. Yes, now and again.Question:Did you try this morning?Answer:YesQuestion:How far did you travel down this morning?Answer:I could not get very far. About 10 or 12 yards. We could not get any farther. The lamps went out and that is what stopped us.Question:Then you came back, and when you came back, what did you do?Answer:If I remember right, I think I saw the fireman, and we told him we could not get down there. He said, 'You must get the pipe out.' So he suggested borrowing a lamp.Question:Who suggested it?Answer:The fireman.Mr. Henderson then made these remarks:I wondered, Sir, whether in view of the unusual circumstances that have arisen in connection with the evidence of this witness and the previous witness, you would deem it desirable to have Lloyd recalled in order to give him the opportunity of saying whether he agrees with the account of this witness with regard to this particular incident?Mr. Shawcross, counsel for the company, said:As far as I am concerned, I am quite willing that that should be done, and you may like to have the fireman as well, Sir. I think perhaps in the circumstances the best course would be, if you think that desirable at all, for you to have the witnesses and put such questions to them as you think right.It was then decided that the witness Lloyd should be recalled and that the fireman Thomas should be put in again. The two witnesses were recalled. They told a story of recklessness and demorali- 1858 sation which explained everything. They more than confirmed all the previous testimony, by workmen employed on the coal face, of lamps having been extinguished by gas, blowing the gas about with a banjack, of protests and quarrels about firing shots in the presence of gas. There is no language in which one can describe the inferno of 14's. There were men working almost stark naked, clogs with holes bored through the bottom to let the sweat run out, a 100 shots a day fired on a face less than 200 yards wide, the air thick with fumes and dust from blasting, the banjack hissing to waft the gas out of the face into the unpacked waste, a space 200 yards long and 100 yards wide above the wind road full of inflammable gas and impenetrable for that reason.
This scandal has been clearly exposed by workmen who were unwilling accessories to the violations and evasions practised every day in Gresford. The management had failed because no one in authority tried to stem the daily decadence which ended so tragically. From top to bottom, nobody had enough courage and character to demand safety provisions. There were workmen who protested; some left the pit, others came to take their places. The Commissioner here recommends that the workmen should exercise their rights to examine and to report upon the conditions of the mine in accordance with Section 16 of the Mines Act. He has rightly divined the importance of trade unionism in regard to safety. The House will appreciate that the workmen have a right to appointat their own cost two of their number or any two persons not being mining engineers who are or who have been practical working miners and have had not less than five years experience of underground work, to inspect the mine once a month,and so on. But where the workmen are not organised, they cannot authorise persons to inspect on their behalf; they cannot pay the cost of inspection unless they have a common fund. The Section cannot be operated unless the workmen are organised. Employers do not always favour organisation. The conduct of the mines frequently suffers because of the refusal of employers to recognise the full legal rights and personal interests of the men they employ.
We now come to His Majesty's inspectors of mines. They are given special protection; the State pays them 1859 their salaries, and confers upon them great authority. They can exert a beneficial influence on the industry when they care to exercise it. In the case of Gresford, the inspectorate does not come out with much credit. The inspection was not effective. The divisional inspector had never entered the colliery. The senior inspector had been six times in about two years to see about accidents reported to him. The junior inspector had paid many visits to view the scene of accidents and to examine reports and overtime records on the surface, but he had never seen anything wrong and had not suggested any improvement or alteration. There is something radically wrong when a mine can get into the state in which the Dennis area has been proved to have been without the slightest hint of danger or defect being known to the divisional inspector or to the Mines Department. We would assume that a glance at the plan should have moved the divisional inspector to inquire into the state of ventilation or to authorise a thorough inspection of that part of the mine. No thorough inspection had been made for nearly two years.
Mr. Shaw, who had been transferred from the district in March, 1933, gave evidence at the inquiry. His detailed observations compare most refreshingly with everything that has come to light in connection with this accident. He is the one person with authority who appears to have done his duty conscientiously and well. I regret I cannot pay the same compliment to the other inspectors or to the management of the mine. It distresses me to speak unsympathetically, but we have to deal with facts and with persons impartially. Two hundred and sixty-four men have died as a result of conditions which should never exist in any mine. That gas was present in 37's, 109's, 95's, 24's and 14's for months past no one should doubt. That gas was present in the 14's face when electricity was in use, when shots were fired, when oil lamps were heated and extinguished has been fully proved. In the reports from the lamp room, covering a period of 15 weeks before 21st September, no less than 18 lamp glasses had been cracked by heat and replaced. Every mining man knows what that means.
There is no great mystery here. The mystery is why the explosion did not hap- 1860 pen long before. All the factors of causation were present in 14's, a large volume of gas, sparks from the electric cables, ignition at the cutting tool of the machine, a damaged lamp or a badly placed shot—any of these could have been responsible. Down in the 24's shots had been fixed in rippings actually on top of inflammable gas. There was one due for firing that night. There is no need to invent the cause of ignition.
The speeches of Mr. Charlton and Mr. Shawcross are reproduced in this report. They indicate how little these gentlemen have profited from the revelations of the inquiry. In the case of Mr. Shawcross, it does not matter very much, except that he is quoted in the report. In the case of Mr. Charlton, the position is different. The Commissioner has taken the evidence seriously and quotes it fully in his report. Mr. Charlton rejects or ignores all the evidence as it seems most convenient to him. He is even now unwilling to believe that gas was present in all the lower parts of the Dennis main area. He rejects the evidence of workmen and officials who admit the entire story of neglect and carelessness. He is impervious to the evidence. One might almost say he is gas-proof. He has produced a theory and falls back on futile and mischievous speculations regarding the cause and place of ignition. There is not a scrap of justification, not a sign or an indication, to confirm his belated explanation. The inquiry was perfectly open. Mr. Charlton could have put forward his theories during the investigation, but he chose to come later when he could not be cross-examined. He has given a lead which Mr. Shawcross, counsel for the company, adopts, and which Mr. John Brass includes in his report without quoting a word of evidence in support.
If we look at the plan, the suggestion breaks down at once. The suggestion that the explosion started from a spark in the telephone is too ridiculous to be entertained by anybody. The telephone at which it is suggested that the gas was ignited is in the main intake at a distance of 50 yards from the face of the drift. We must assume that there must have been at that point anything from 30,000 to 40,000 cubic feet of air coming in. It is 50 yards away from the face where the men were working and to which reference is made by Mr. Charlton. 1861 Water does not run uphill, neither does gas flow from the direction of least pressure to that of higher pressure. It is an impossible and a ridiculous suggestion. Moreover, Mr. Charlton did not see the telephone until at least eight hours after the explosion. The telephone was quite undamaged. The telephone was in its box as it had previously been, unscathed and bearing no sign of damage. Does anybody believe that an explosion could have been caused by a spark from the telephone and the telephone have remained undisturbed in its condition? The telephone was intact, undamaged. Mr. Charlton arrived there after scores of other persons had been past the telephone. There is no assurance that Mr. Charlton saw this telephone hanging to build up his theory upon it then. This theory was invented by Mr. Charlton and Mr. Shawcross. Not a word of evidence has been given by any of the 189 witnesses who were called by the parties and examined by both these gentlemen. This is not treating the inquiry with respect. These gentlemen could have presented any number of interesting theories without having heard one word of evidence on either side. I regret that His Majesty's Inspector has ignored the facts and has resorted to fancy instead. I do not wish to refer to Mr. Shawcross, except to say that Mr. Shawcross, much against his will, had to take gas at the inquiry. He swallowed a reservoir of gas, and now we find him, on page 169 of the report, sniffing at a gob stink.
The mining industry is a school of hard experience. We pay dearly for instruction. In this instance the commissioner has learned something even at the approaching end of his very long experience in this industry, and he has made his recommendations. I wish he had been more emphatic in some matters. Mr. Joseph Jones has declared his view and has not gone outside the evidence of the inquiry for his conclusions. This House will deal in its own way with this subject. I most earnestly hope that we shall make it unmistakably clear that we shal require the strictest administration of the law and of the regulations, and that if new legislation is necessary, this House will play its part in protecting the lives of the men who dig coal for the increase of wealth and comfort in this land.
§ 4.33 p.m.
§ The Secretary for Mines (Captain Crookshank)
This Debate is an inevitable one, in view of the Report recently presented to Parliament. If I may, I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell) on the way in which he has opened it. He has, himself, a fund of technical knowledge on this subject shared by very few in this House, and he has the further advantage, as he told us, of having attended throughout the inquiry; and beyond that, as is probably known to many, he is one of those who is at the moment giving his services as a Commissioner to the Royal Commission on Safety and Health in Mines and is, therefore, day by day hearing evidence and seeing points of view many of which, of course, cover some of the aspects of this particular disaster.
This disaster is one which was unparalleled for a period of over 20 years in the number of deaths that were involved, and naturally, in a catastrophe of that kind, there were many wounds inflicted. More is the pity, in a way, that we have to have this Debate, because time must be beginning to heal some of the bitterness—[An HON. MEMBER: "We shall never forget."]—and I hope that nothing that may be said in this Debate will make it any harder for those who have survived, certainly not if I can help it. One of the most poignant lines that you will find written by Virgil is one in the Second Aeneid, where Aeneas, beginning a description of his long wanderings, opens with the remark:Too cruel to be told, great Queen, is the sorrow you bid me to revive.Here we are speaking of a particular morning in 1934, two o'clock on 22nd September, in a section of the Gresford pit. Something happened, and 265 lives were lost as a consequence. At once my predecessor ordered a formal investigation, in the words of the terms of appointment, "into the Causes and Circumstances of the Explosion." Sir Henry Walker, the Chief Inspector, was appointed as the Commissioner, and with him sat two Assessors, Mr. John Brass and Mr. Joseph Jones. At the end of Mr. Jones' Report he expresses the considered opinion—and I refer to this because I was asked a question about it the other day—that the Chief Inspector of Mines, or any of his assistants, should not in future be called upon 1863 to conduct formal investigations of this kind. He says he does not impute incompetence or unfairness, but he recognises that it is a difficult position. That may be Mr. Jones' considered opinion, but I think it should be on the record that it is his opinion after the event. It is an ex post facto opinion, because at the time when the Commission was set up, as was stated in this House, the appointment of Sir Henry Walker and the constitution of the Court were settled after consultation, and in accordance, with the wishes of the Mineworkers' Federation of Great Britain. It may be that the result of this inquiry makes many hon. Members think it is undesirable that this course should be followed, but let us remember that at the time when the Court was set up, representatives of the men were specifically asked about it and that it was after consultation and in accordance with their wishes, that Sir Henry Walker was appointed the Commissioner, because they held, I understand, that it was the kind of investigation in which it would be of advantage to have as the Court someone who, in the ordinary language, was a good pit man and, therefore, understood the case that was being put. It has been for many years the normal practice for the Chief Inspector to be the chief member of the Court in cases of this kind, a practice which has been adopted by all parties who have had to deal with the administration of the Coal Mines Act. But for the future, I do not think that I can, here and now, possibly bind myself or my successors by saying that under no circumstances should we ever have anybody to judge or, alternatively, that under no circumstances should we have anybody else excepting the Chief Inspector. I think, generally speaking, these cases must all depend on the circumstances which surround a particular disaster—though I only hope there may not be many disasters which will require a Court at all. I do not think it would be possible, here and now, to lay down specifically the course of action in matters so delicate and difficult as this.
But I do think the Court should receive from us all our thanks for the way in which it patiently carried out this investigation. The long delay between the publication of the Report and the original setting up of the Court was, of 1864 course, chiefly due to the doubt as to whether it would be feasible to enter the area where the explosion had taken place, because obviously, if anybody could have seen the site or got anywhere near it, they might have been able to come to far more definite conclusions than they could from merely cross-examining witnesses. That is the cause of the delay. And it is largely due to the fact that no one has been able to enter into the affected area, as well as, of course, to the fact that it is clear from the Report that a great deal of the evidence submitted was contradictory, that there is so much mystery still left as to what happened. If the House will look at the Report, at the bottom of page 105, they will find that the Commissioner's conclusion is that:when, as in this case, no inspection is possible, the place of origin and cause become matters of conjecture not capable of proof, and, as Mr. Joseph Hall rightly indicated in his speech, it is not possible to state the cause of this explosion.It is true that the two Assessors are slightly more definite, but their theories are quite different, and I think the real fact is that, with the mine sealed up as it is, it is impossible to find what is the cause. But this one can say, that there was an explosion, because there are survivors who felt it, and that there was a fire, because there are survivors who saw one. It is also possible, as the Commissioner did, to go as far as this and to say that there were certain dangers which arose out of the ventilation, and that the neglect of that, somehow, somewhere, may have caused the trouble.
The matters principally raised by this Report appear to be three different aspects of the law—first of all, the observance of the law dealing with safety by those engaged in the industry, owners, officials, workmen; secondly, the problem of the administration of the law, which is laid by Parliamentary authority upon myself and upon His Majesty's Inspectors; and, thirdly, the amendment of the law, whether it is by Parliament or whether it is under such powers of regulation as I have. Those seem to me to be the three points with which I am primarily concerned, at any rate, at this stage of the Debate.
May I take the first, the observance of the law by those concerned in it? In spite of a relatively good accident record in the 1865 past, the managing staff and the officials, according to the Report, did not, in important respects, effectively control the necessary safety measures. Under the law the responsibility in chief rested with the manager, and during the course of the investigation he accepted it. The Report, of course, is very technical to those who are not as experienced as the hon. Member who spoke first, and many Members of this House must have found it very hard to follow, but even with comparatively little knowledge of the subject, anyone reading through the Report will get the impression that some things in the Dennis area were definitely bad. But it is not for me or for anyone in this Debate to assume that in respect of this or that matter there is guilt in the eyes of the law. I have naturally been in close touch with my hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, and he has the whole question of proceedings arising out of the Report under active consideration. The material is voluminous, but is being examined with a view to seeing which findings of the Court are a proper subject matter for further proceedings at law. This applies also to the part of the Report which refers to the alleged fabrication or concealment of evidence. In these circumstances it would be wrong for me to discuss, except in the most general terms, that part of the findings dealing with the observance of the law.
Before I leave that point, there is one aspect to which the attention of the House should be called. That is the opinion expressed by the Commissioner on page 72, where he says that his conclusion on the evidence was that:shot firing in 14's district was carried on with little regard for the requirements laid down in the Explosives in Coal Mines Order, and that the workmen were just as keen to get shots fired speedily as those who were firing the shots ….There is also his view expressed later, on page 86 that:there was a considerable amount of incidental evidence that men were allowed to work and did work longer hours than are permitted by the Coal Mines Regulation Act, 1908. … In fact, the provisions of that Act were, to all intents and purposes, ignored.Later, on page 87, he said thatit would seem that there was at least some tacit arrangement between the management and the workmen or their representatives.The House should be in possession of that expression of views by the Commis- 1866 sioner. It is to a certain extent borne out by a remark made by Mr. Jones on page 144 when he is dealing with what he calls:indiscipline and complete demoralisation among the officials,and when at the end of the sentence, he refers to the impression:that flagrant risks were taken with the knowledge of all concerned in order that the maximum tonnage could be got per day.The second problem is the administration of the law through the inspectors. Perhaps I may be allowed to explain to hon. Members who do not sit for mining constituencies—it is elementary to those who do—what are the general arrangements for inspection. There are eight districts, each of which has a divisional inspector in charge with a central office. Under him there are senior inspectors who have parts of the district allotted to them, and below them, leaving out the technical inspectors, are junior and sub-inspectors throughout the districts. The number of inspectors has remained pretty constant for a considerable period of years. Actually, the number of pits which are working has gone down in recent years and so has the number of men in employment. On the other hand, there has been a great increase in the use of machinery, so that, as far as the labours of the inspectors are concerned, perhaps these two factors roughly balance out. It would be difficult to say exactly. All recent Governments have accepted the general positions as it is to-day?
Are there enough inspectors? The numbers, as I have said, are pretty constant. For the years from 1928 to this year, there has not been a fluctuation of more than three or four inspectors dealing with coal mines. I leave out those dealing with quarries and other mines. I find that going back as far as 1924 there were 95, and for some years it was 96 or 97. In 1930 it went up to a 100, in 1931 it was 98, and in 1935 it was 99, so that there has been no great variation. Indeed, in the evidence which the Mine Workers Federation of Great Britain have just given to the Royal Commission on the question of inspectors, they do not specifically offer any suggestion as to how numerous the inspectorate ought to be. In their main evidence they only say that there ought to be a larger number, and in cross- 1867 examination the opinion was expressed that there should be enough for a thorough inspection to be made once a year.
The problem, then, is whether the inspectors are inspecting enough. The inspectors are out and about every day, and it is interesting to tell the House that they receive very few complaints about the condition of pits.
§ Captain Crookshank
From anybody. Therefore, their only way of deciding which pit to inspect is to decide it for themselves and to take a sample. In the North Wales area which we are discussing, it is a curious thing that during the whole of 1934 no complaint was made to the inspectors about any pit. In 1935 there were only two, in 1936 only one, and this year none. [Interruption.] I am dealing with the problem of how the inspectors decide what pits to inspect. They will naturally first inspect a pit about which complaint has been made, from whatever source the complaint comes. It may be from Members of this House or from a workman in the pit. It might even be an anonymous complaint, because they are investigated too. When they decide what pits they will inspect, they have to rely on their own judgment. They do it by taking a sample in the same way as all inspections are done, whether factory inspection, or inspections by local authorities into overcrowding or in carrying out the many functions that are placed on them. When there is a military inspection of a battalion, one general will look at the buttons and another at the boots. It is a question of samples.
That position was explained in the evidence which was given on my behalf to the Royal Commission by the Under-Secretary for Mines. He was asked about this method of inspection, and he said that the inspectors visited every pit at least once a year. They so arranged their inspections that in the course of three years they have been throughout every part of the pit. Beyond that, they use their discretion. If they see that a pit is well managed and satisfactory, they do not visit it so often as in the case of those that are below the average. The same kind of procedure is adopted by the 1868 inspectors who inspect on behalf of the workmen. Evidence was given on this point for the Miners' Federation by Mr. Emmerson, who was asked how he did the examinations in Durham. He said that the number of inspections depended upon the conditions of the colliery. The colliery that stood fairly well would not have as many inspections as the colliery below par. That is exactly the same principle as that adopted by His Majesty's inspectors. A colliery which has a good reputation, whose accident record has nothing to indicate that it is in a particular zone of danger, is treated in exactly the same way as the workmen's inspector treats it. If the record is good, the colliery will not have as many inspections as one that is below par. If there are no complaints, I suppose that the workmen's inspector, too, acts upon his own judgment. There were no complaints about Gresford. The accident record up to this disastrous time was good—if you can use such a phrase about any accident record. When I say "good," I mean it was a better record than that of the whole country or for that district.
This colliery got its full share of the inspector's time. As we find on page 91 of the Commissioner's Report, it got its full share of inspection at the rate of rather more than one a month. To return to the point I was making about a thorough examination once a year, the hon. Gentleman dealt with a district called the 14's district. Let us take that as an example. In his Report the assessor, Mr. Jones, calls that district a "veritable gasometer." The junior inspector, Mr. Dominy, was in that very district on the 21st March, 1934. He made tests and he found no gas. There was no suggestion then that there was anything wrong. In April, the Commissioner points out in his Report, there was trouble at the "top end," and in May the situation had got such that, in his view, a drastic remedy was needed. An inspection once a year, supposing that inspection had been in March, would not have helped that contingency.
§ Captain Crookshank
I know what a thorough inspection means. The point here is that there was an inspection which showed that there was no gas.
§ Mr. Grenfell
Mr. Dominy on his own evidence did not go to 14's to look for gas. He went there to visit the scene of an accident, and he went nowhere else.
§ Captain Crookshank
I never said for what purpose he went there. I said that he went there, and, according to the Commissioner's Report on page 45, he made tests for gas and found no gas. He had had no complaints made to him. He was in this district, whatever the reason, and tested for gas in March. Things got rapidly worse, and yet no one mentioned it to the junior inspector. He was back in the pit for one reason or another in May, June, twice in July, and in September, but nothing was said to him about this rapidly deteriorating position. He was in exactly the same position as any other inspector who has to decide where he will make his investigation or inspection. He went to the place and he heard no bad report of this particular pit, which was certainly not the worst pit of those which were in his inspecting area.
§ Captain Crookshank
I do not think it was, by any manner of means. As I said, I think it had had a fairly good record.
The hon. Gentleman opposite stressed the position in regard to the inspectors. They are the people for whom I answer in this House and the next question which arises is whether or not they have sufficient powers to deal with this problem. The indictment here in the Report about the general ventilation position is that the lay-out was bad, that there were too few air ways and that ventilation plans were neglected and so on. If hon. Members study the Act of 1911 they will find, as has been made clear in the Report, that the only test which the law requires is the test of Section 29 which judges ventilation entirely by, results as to whether it is adequate or not. That test was made by the inspector and the results showed that even in this district, which was afterwards shown to be so dangerous, there was nothing for complaint. It may be that greater powers should be given to the inspectors. That is one of the points upon which we hope to get advice from the Royal Commission, but at the moment on the question of ventilation it is entirely 1870 by results that the inspectors have to test these matters and by the results, in this case, there was nothing for Mr. Donimy to report upon.
The other problem which comes up is whether the general organisation of the inspection districts is right. The present organisation was the result of the Royal Commission of 1909 and there again, for advice as to the future, we must await the report of the present Royal Commission. The House will remember that the setting up of that Royal Commission was one of the important points in the Government's programme dealing with coal at the last General Election and one of the first things that we did when this Parliament met was to set up that Commission. It has been working very hard under the distinguished chairmanship of Lord Rockley. This Report has been circulated to the members of the Commission and no doubt, in any advice or recommendations which they make, they will take account of all that is said in the Report. But I think that on these particular points as to the powers, the responsibilities and the districts of the inspectors, we must await what they have to say after taking all the evidence. Of course that Commission was set up after this disaster occurred and therefore this was one of the points which was in mind.
Another point with regard to the inspectors is the position of individual inspectors, and perhaps I may be allowed to say something upon that matter, because the remarks of Mr. Jones the assessor in the Report are of such a sweeping nature that I could not pass them over without comment. He says, on page 146, that the evidence reveals that the visits were both "insufficient and ineffective." The other assessor, Mr. Brass, makes no comment. Therefore I hope I am right in assuming that he concurs in the views of the Commissioner. The Commissioner, in the first place, on page 89, does not accept the statement which was made by counsel that the inspectors "naturally desired to, minimise any adverse features in the condition of the mine." He does not think that, on the evidence, that statement is justified. Secondly, he does not accept the statement that the inspectors, equally with the management and the deputies, were "responsible for the explosion." He finds no justification for imputing "any general neglect or incompetency" to the inspectors.
1871 I have naturally gone carefully into the matter and I have to inform the House that I agree with the Commissioner in his view with regard to these three inspectors. It is not, I consider, an occasion for any disciplinary action. After all, these three inspectors, like all other inspectors, are and were during all this time, very hard-worked men with many responsibilities for many mines. Gresford was not the only one with which they were concerned. They are no more infallible, I imagine than any of the rest of us and as I have said the indications which they received were to the effect that Gresford had a fairly good record. They had no particular reason to be suspicious of it. They had no particular reason to have any less confidence in the manager of that pit than they had generally in the managers of pits and it is the manager and not the inspector who is the person responsible for the safety of a pit. It is possible on the evidence adduced that if more time had been devoted by the inspectors to examining all the records as regards ventilation, shot-firing or stone-dust prima facie they might have seen that there was something which required immediate investigation. On the other hand, I should be very slow to lay it down that the bulk of inspecting must consist of looking through plans and records in the colliery offices. If that were so, we should very soon have complaints the other way round and questions as to why the inspectors did not come down the pits. It is difficult for the inspector, upon whom the responsibility rests, to decide upon balance which is the best way to do the inspecting.
Mr. Charlton is a divisional inspector and it would be doing much less than justice to him or to any other inspectors to say that he and they only deal with things about which they have legal powers. Everybody in the mining world knows that by influence and persuasion the inspectors are able to achieve a great deal for the safety and health of the workers—far in excess of anything they can do merely by acting as policemen. Mr. Charlton has had a very wide experience. He was the divisional inspector in the Swansea area before he was where he now is and it is my intention that he should continue in his present post. The senior inspector, Mr. Boyden, has not had such wide experience. He was senior inspector in the Midland and Southern 1872 district for nine years and he has been in his present district for seven and a-half years. He is now nearing the age of retirement and a junior inspector will shortly be promoted to take his place in the North-Western division. In the few remaining months of his service he will be employed on special duties elsewhere. Mr. Dominy came from Scotland where he had had very good reports previously. He came here in order to get wider experience before the time when he might be promoted to a senior inspectorship and he was stationed in North Wales to get that experience. Having, to the best of my ability, reviewed all the circumstances, I am unable to find justification for the severity of some of the criticisms directed against him during the inquiry. I feel that while he is a good inspector he may be, like many others of us, a bad witness, especially when it comes to being cross-examined by the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite. The fact that one is not very good in the witness-box does not necessarily mean that one is not good at one's job. The reports which I have had since on Mr. Dominy confirm me in my opinion that, while it was desirable from all points of view that he should not stay in North Wales after all this, there is nothing against him in the work which he is now doing.
This has been a matter of great anxiety to me and I hope the House will take it from me that if I thought there was any occasion for disciplinary action I would take such action. I recognise that in times of stress and emotion like this there is a natural tendency in the minds of many people to try to find a scapegoat. I do not wish to find a scapegoat and none of these three inspectors should be made a scapegoat. If I allowed myself to be swayed by any attempts of that kind I should be doing less than justice to a very hard-working body of public officials.
So much for the inspectors, and I do not want to keep the House much longer. But I must say something about the third point which I mentioned, namely, the present and the immediate future and the amendment of the law. I have pointed out, I think with sufficient clearness, that the big matters must await the advice which we will get from the Royal Commission and that advice will be taken into immediate consideration in order that we may make our pro- 1873 posals to this House as to what ought to be done. I am sure that in any case but still more after this event, the House will have no hesitation in conforming to our wishes when the time comes.
The question is whether there is not anything in this Report as to which something might be done, even in anticipation, and perhaps the House would be interested to know something about that aspect of the question. The first thing to be considered is whether there may have been and whether there is revealed in the Report any defect of organisation. I have dealt with that by a general instruction to all inspectors. They have each received a copy of the Report for personal study. They have received instructions as to how they are to act when taking over a fresh appointment or on transfer, a matter about which something is said in the Report. Those instructions have been very clearly laid down by me. They have also received fresh instructions as to examining the reports and records at colliery offices. They have received fresh instructions—and this is a new point—as to examining ventilation records and plans, and if they see anything in the plans to which they think the attention of their superior officers should be directed it is incumbent upon them to do so. That is a new responsibility placed upon them as a result of this Report. And they have also received fresh instructions about ensuring the proper taking of stonedust samples.
That is what I have been able to do with the inspectors. Beyond that, I am considering drafting regulations under the powers which I possess. Here may I say in parenthesis that I have made it clear to the Royal Commission that anything which is done at this time is purely ad interim and is not to be taken, in any way, as prejudging their recommendations. Nor indeed are these regulations intended to deal with the most important things but with things which arise at the moment because they are specifically mentioned in the Report on the disaster. We should be failing in our duty, even though they are not the most important things, if we did not proceed to deal with them. The regulations then which I am drafting deal first of all with the use of telephones and bells and secondly with the question of fire precautions and the question, for example, of having dumps 1874 of sand or stone dust in certain specific places. While I am not in a position at the moment to give details they will also deal with certain points about tire fighting organisation which might be adopted and practices which might be used in the mines for helping to deal with outbreaks of fire. There will also be new regulations dealing with stone dusting, and the question of keeping plans to show the places where samples have been taken, and, secondly, laying down that where the volatile content is over 20 per cent. the combustible content of road dust should be kept throughout below the required minimum of 50 per cent. Those regulations are in process of being drafted and will be submitted to the Royal Commission before they are put into effect, I must, shortly without prejudice to the Commission's recommendations for fundamental changes of the law.
§ Captain Crookshank
Overtime cannot be dealt with by regulations. That is entirely another matter.
The hon. Member for Gower will notice that I have not referred to his Motion at all. That is not out of discourtesy to him, because I think that he will have realised from what I have said how much I sympathise with it. I want the House to accept it. I do not want there to be any division of opinion between the two sides of the House on a matter of this kind. It will be easier for us if the hon. Member, instead of saying in his Motion, "to prevent such disasters" would say, "to try to prevent," because while the Legislature is a Sovereign Legislature there are things called "acts of God" which cannot really—[Interruption].
§ Captain Crookshank
I do not press it, but it would be nice if he would change the wording, though I would rather accept the Motion as it stands than have any difference of opinion. I would make it clear, of course, that when he speaks of "immediate and effective measures" the word "immediate" is understood in the way that I have said, that regulations on certain points are being drafted, but that the larger matters must inevitably await the Report of the Royal Commission.
1875 After all, the issue here is the issue of the safety of the man in the pit. As we all know, the life of the miner is one of very great danger all the time and, as far as that goes, so is the life of many other workers, but, of course, they do not spend their lives in quite the same difficult set of circumstances as do the miners. It is true, of course, and it is just as well to remember it, that many miners follow an almost hereditary craft, that the son succeeds the father, and, indeed, that many of them look upon a life of risk as a real he-man's life. Still, in spite of that, in spite of all that modern science can do, you cannot breathe the fresh air and have light and sunshine in the pit. In spite of all that modern science can do in the way of teaching man to try to control his environment, at the end of it all immense forces of nature may be released which may crush him, or burn him, or blow him up. And he cannot depend merely upon himself for his safety. His safety does so much depend upon the help and co-operation and attention of so many other people over whom he, as an individual, has little control, and unless they all play their part—and that is the point I would make—the individual's risk is doubled, trebled or multiplied almost to infinity.
Of course, everybody was shocked at the news of this catastrophe, and many, no doubt, have been shocked at the statements which are made in this Report, but I hope that as a result of the study of the Report we shall learn any lessons that we can from this catastrophe. This is not really a time for bitterness; it is a time for grief, but not for bitterness. Out of this catastrophe let us try to increase our scientific knowledge, let us try to improve our administrative system, if it can be improved, let us try to strengthen the law, if there are weaknesses; because that is the only way in which we can afford any consolation that it is in our power to offer to those who are bereaved—that is the assurance that Parliament's endeavour, so far as Parliament can influence such things, will be to limit the field of danger for present and for future generations of mining men. That seems to me to be the task before us all in the light of this Report and of the Debate to which it has tragically but inevitably given rise.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Ernest Evans
I am sure the House will join in the tribute which the Minister paid to the very able speech in which my hon. Friend introduced this Motion. By reason of his experience as a mine worker, as well as by reason of his intimate association with this inquiry, there was no one more fitted to initiate the discussion. He was able to speak as a man with expert knowledge, and the Minister of Mines, if he has not himself practical experience as a mine worker, at least has behind him the authority and the experience of a great Department, and he necessarily referred to some matters of a technical character. It may, therefore, be appropriate if, at this stage, I seek to intervene as one with no expert knowledge, for the purpose of emphasising what I think he wants emphasised, and that is one or two broad issues of policy which are raised by the tragedy and by the Report of the inquiry.
First I want the House to bear in mind that one of the things Which Parliament does, and which I think it is glad to do, is to make provision in Acts of Parliament for such safeguards as are practicable for protecting and safeguarding the lives of those engaged in dangerous occupations in this country. It has done that for the mining industry. The importance of the industry to the wellbeing and, indeed, to the security of the nation, and an appreciation of the hazards and hardships which that industry imposes upon those engaged in it, have all conduced to that end, and when Parliament makes provisions of that character it is entitled to expect that they shall be put into operation.
The first thing which is obvious to anybody who has studied the Report is that that expectation was very far from having been realised in the case of the Gresford Colliery. I will take as an illustration, and as an illustration only, the part of the Report which deals with ventilation. To adopt the word of the Minister, one is "shocked" by the sort of thing which has come out in this inquiry. One need not be an expert to realise that proper ventilation is of essential importance not only to the efficiency of a mine but to the safety of those working in it. It is because of that elementary fact that the Coal Mines Act, 1911, in Part II, which is concerned with the provisions for safety, starts off with a series of sections 1877 dealing with ventilation. It calls upon those who are carrying on the industry to provide reports and returns for the Ministry, but the Report of Sir Henry Walker shows that at Gresford in the two months immediately preceding this disaster no proper reports were made, and in regard to previous months he is driven to the conclusion that a lot of the alleged records which are set out in the prescribed form required by Act of Parliament were fictitious; in other words, they were of no use. Although that is a serious matter I use it merely as an illustration, because it is not the most serious part of the Report.
A graver aspect of the matter is that there seems to be a great deal of uncertainty as to the value of those reports when they are made, and I should like the Minister, or whoever replies, to tell us what is the purpose of these reports and returns for which the Department calls, and what use it makes of them when it gets them. I ask that question because I notice that the divisional inspector is reported to have said that even when these records are obtained and are sent on to the Mines Department they are used merely for statistical purposes and not for control purposes. I should like to know a little more of what that means. If these reports are not of any practical value we might as well allow the industry to carry on without the necessity of making them, because they obviously involve a good deal of time and labour. If they are of no use, drop them: but if they are of use it is the duty of the Department to see that they are stringently accurate and that use is made of them.
There is a yet more serious aspect of the same matter, even when these reports and returns are sent to the Ministry, and that is, are they adequate for the purpose which the framers of the Coal Mines Act, 1911, must have had in mind when imposing the necessity for making those returns? I ask that because I feel very much concerned as to one part of Sir Henry Walker's Report, in which he says that these reports, in so far as they refer to air measurements, are no indication that there does exist an adequacy of ventilation in the mines. The Coal Mines Act, 1911, says that an adequate amount of ventilation shall be constantly produced in every mine to dilute and render harmless inflammable and noxious gases. 1878 Apparently those reports and returns do not indicate that that adequate measure of ventilation is secured. He says:So long as the ventilation complies with that provision the present law does not concern itself with any question whether the system and method of ventilation are workmanlike and efficient or, indeed, whether there is any method or any system at all.That is borne out by the statement made by the divisional inspector, reported in page 91 of the Report. He says:If ventilation, judged by the absence of gas, is adequate, the Inspectors have no power to deal with such matters as large leakages of air and small size of return airways.In other words, there is no adequate machinery for ensuring that the ventilation of a mine is adequate for any other purpose than that of complying with the provisions of a particular Section of one Act of Parliament, and that is a matter of very serious moment. I understand that it is being considered at the present time by the Royal Commission, and it seems to me that it calls for urgent and effective treatment. I said, in regard to that portion of the Report which deals with ventilation, that it is made abundantly clear that there was a breach of existing regulations, and that there is no certainty whether existing regulations are sufficient for the purpose. I think it is not exaggerating to say that we find the same thing in regard to every other part of the Report, whatever may be the subject.
I do not want to go through all those matters in detail, because there are others more competent to do that than I am, and I pass on to a part of the Report, to which the Minister himself referred, dealing with shot firing and hours of work. In this matter we have admittedly had for months continuing breaches of the law. So far as I can see, the only excuse is that the workmen themselves must have been parties to those breaches of the law, but that cannot be condoned, by whomsoever they were committed. It does not matter whether the workmen were contributing parties or not; the important thing is that there were breaches of the law in regard to two matters which were of essential importance to the safety of the workers themselves.
The suggestion is made that the workers were induced—I put it that way—to condone those offences because of the fear of victimisation. I want to be frank about this matter. When I hear sugges- 1879 tions of victimisation I am inclined to approach them, I will not say with suspicion, but rather critically. A policy of victimisation is not only cruel and unfair but is silly from the point of view of those who practise it. It is bound to lead in the end to dissatisfaction, inefficiency, and, finally, disaster. I must confess that I am alarmed to find in another part of the Report references which seem to bear out very strongly the suggestion that there is victimisation, certainly so far as this particular colliery was concerned. Sir Henry Walker points out that it had for some weeks, if not months, been clear that certain improvements ought to have been effected in the mines. He asked himself why those reforms were not effected, and he makes the very curious suggestion that the manager or the under-manager was afraid to report the defects to the inspectors because to do so might have been considered a disloyal act. Are we to be told that responsible officials engaged in the coal-mining industry in this country are not to make reports on matters affecting the safety of the mines because they will be told that they have been guilty of disloyal acts? That is a very serious suggestion to make. Sir Henry Walker does not leave it there, because he says, on page 113:Means should be evolved …. by which, in such circumstances, managers can retain their posts and, at the same time, have the mines which they manage kept in safe condition.That is one of the most damning statements that I have ever heard in regard to the management and control of any industry, and I would ask the Minister to tell us whether he thinks there is any justification for that statement by Sir Henry Walker. Sir Henry is a very experienced man, and he heard this inquiry over a large number of days. Does the Minister think that if that is true in regard to Gresford Colliery it is also true of other mines in this country? If so, it is a most dangerous situation to exist in an industry where the safety and lives of the working people are daily in peril.
I believe that there is another explanation why supervision and management in Gresford were hopelessly inadequate and inefficient. I do not want to turn anybody out of a job, but the position of manager of a coal mine involves so much work that it should not be occupied by persons who are over a certain age, or 1880 are lacking in that activity and energy which must obviously be expended if the manager of a coal mine is to do his job properly. In spite of what the Minister said about a large inspectorate—I appreciate that he is compelled to defend the interests of the inspectors—it is clear from the Report that the inspectors, if they were not inefficient, were inadequate in numbers for the proper supervision of the mines in the area in which Gresford was situated. That is practically admitted, and is stressed by Sir Henry Walker. If there is a job for inspectors to do it is the duty of the Minister to see that there are sufficient inspectors to do it, and that the inspectors are efficient in that job.
The only other matter to which I would refer is a consideration which presented itself to my mind when I read the Report, and that was that this form of tribunal is not the most suitable or the most competent to inquire into disasters of this character. So far as I am aware, no charge is made, and I am not making a charge, which involves any question against the impartiality of Sir Henry Walker, but in a matter of this sort it really is not quite right that the inquiry should be entrusted to a gentleman who is, after all, an official, and a very responsible official, of the Minister, who ultimately has to accept and defend his responsibility. Inquiry by an official of the Ministry is insufficient for the Minister, it must be embarrassing for the Chief Inspector, and it may be very unfair to some of his colleagues in the Ministry. It is unsatisfactory to the industry, and I believe that it is unsatisfactory to the public. The public are entitled to be considered in this matter.
There is a common saying, and a very true one, that it is of the utmost importance not only that justice should be done but that the public should appreciate that justice is being done. If that applies to the administration of justice in a court of law in this country, it applies also where an inquiry is being conducted into a matter which shocked the public of the country by reason of the tremendous suffering which was endured. The public were shocked also, I believe, by the grave consequences which were revealed by the inquiry, and which we are now considering.
I do not necessarily commit myself to the statement that there should always 1881 be a judge in charge of such an inquiry, but I think there should be somebody who is accustomed to hearing, weighing and judging evidence; somebody who is entirely independent of the Government and of the industry, whether it be on the owners' side or that of the workmen. That is perhaps a less serious issue than the others to which I have drawn attention, and I therefore pass it over. I merely say this: This House appreciates and recognises the importance of the mining industry to the well-being of all of us, it is not lacking in appreciation of the hardships and the perils which are involved to those who are engaged underground or in other parts of the industry. It is desirous of doing everything in its power to protect them, and to diminish the risks which they have to undergo. I want to tell the Secretary for Mines that this House will not merely expect him to give us an assurance that he is watching with sympathy the matters which have been raised in the Report, but will expect him to act quickly and effectively.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Richards
The House will have gathered from the opening speech of my hon. Friend that this was one of the most serious disasters in the history of mining; 265 lives were lost and only seven bodies were recovered. A very distressing feature of the catastrophe is that that portion of the mine in which the disaster occurred is still in such a condition that it is impossible to approach it, and it is impossible, consequently, to establish the cause of the explosion. The inquiry was conducted by the Chief Inspector of Mines in person. On personal grounds, I think Sir Henry Walker showed a great deal of resource and courage immediately after the disaster. I do not think anybody can object on any other ground to his occupying this position, except that he was one of the guilty parties. I also think that in a matter of this gravity no one less than a Judge of the High Court should be in charge of the inquiry. For one thing, a judge, accustomed to listening to evidence, would have got rid of a great deal of extraneous matter that may possibly have got in, in the course of the inquiry. Moreover, he would not be an official of the Department. Another possibility is that a judge might have brought forth not three reports such as we have been considering to-day, but a 1882 single report, with possibly certain reservations on the part of the assessors. It is tragic in the nature of the disaster, that there should have been three separate reports.
We are anxious on all sides of the House that disasters of this kind should be impossible, and it is recognised as the duty of this House to remove the possibility of disasters on this scale. There can be only three parties who could have brought about this catastrophe. Firstly, it may have been caused by a foolish accident on the part of some individual collier. The second responsible party is the manager, and the third is, of course, the inspector. With regard to the first, we have no evidence and we never shall have, but I submit that even a foolish accident would be less reprehensible than the slow series of acts that led to the final catastrophe. Here we have a very sharp distinction between the occasion of the disaster and the cause. We are thrown back upon the fact that the cause or causes have to be sought rather in the inactivity of the management and of the inspector. That point is brought out very clearly in the Report. An accident was inevitable. The conditions predisposing to accident are writ large on almost every page of the Report. Whatever may have been the final catastrophe, there is no doubt that the tragic events of which we have heard so much this afternoon, and which led up to and made inevitable the explosions, are those which we must investigate. In those conditions, an explosion could not possibly have been avoided. I wonder only that an explosion did not take place many months before, and I wonder again to-night that other explosions, not only in this pit but in other pits, do not take place more often.
The management, then, and the inspectorate are very largely concerned in the responsibility for this most terrible accident, and here I would like to pay my tribute to the courage that has been shown by the Chief Inspector in his references to his colleagues of the inspectorate. For example, this is what he says on page 84 of the Report:Mr. Dominy, in evidence, stated that during his inspections in the Dennis Section, he saw plainly that the main roads were being thoroughly stonedusted and on the auxiliary roads he did not see any coal dust. He took two samples on the main haulage road, the results of which have already been given. He examined the prescribed record of the results 1883 of tests of dust samples but, like Mr. Shaw, he failed to observe that samples were not being taken on the main haulage road and on the roads in the districts in accordance with the requirements of the General Regulations. Similarly, Mr. Boydell judged the stonedusting of the roads by visual examination and not by taking samples. He said as the result of this examination that the condition as to dust seemed to be quite satisfactory and he too failed to observe that samples were not being taken as required by the Regulations. Mr. L. C. A. Benson, Sub-Inspector in the North Staffordshire coalfield made one inspection at the mine, namely, on 26th June, 1933, and he reported that the condition of the roads as regards stonedust appeared to be satisfactory. All these Inspectors"—and he names pretty well every inspector that has ever been to Gresford as far as I can see—appeared to be of opinion that a sufficient idea of the state of the roadways with regard to stonedusting could be obtained by visual examination. It may be possible by visual examination to determine whether stonedust has been recently applied and it is possible when, as at Gresford Colliery, the stonedust used was practically white. But it is not possible to determine the combustible content of an intimate mixture of coal dust and stone-dust by looking at it.On page 90 he sums up the situation with regard to the inspectorate as follows:In the sections of this Report dealing with ventilation and with precautions against coal dust, it has been my duty to say that in certain respects, in my judgment, certain inspectors were at fault in their dealings with this colliery over a period of years, and I have now to say that in 1933 there was a defect of organisation which ought not to have occurred, in that when Mr. Dominy took over the duties of Mr. Show proper steps were not taken …I do not know that the Minister need be quite as complacent as he appears to me to be in dealing with the delinquencies of these inspectors. After all, here is a very serious and a very courageous indictment of the Inspectorate of Mines from the Chief Inspector himself. I have already indicated that, unfortunately, the inquiry naturally developed along lines of interest, and the result is that, instead of one strong vigorous report, we have three reports. I am astonished to find the close corespondence that there is between the report of Sir Henry Walker and the report of Mr. Joseph Jones. Mr. Joseph Jones, naturally enough, if I may so put it, is rather more emphatic; Sir Henry Walker is perhaps a little more specific. Sir Henry's report, unfortunately, is highly technical, and here is 1884 another disadvantage from which we suffer in having the Chief Inspector as the conductor of this inquiry. It is, I know, a highly technical question, but I would draw the attention of the House to the fact that the short introduction given by Mr. Jones in his report gives us a better bird's-eye view of the situation in the main than we get in either of the others.
As my hon. Friend has suggested, it is a considerable disadvantage from the point of view of the public, who are entitled and who are anxious, particularly in my constituency, to know the facts, and I think it would be an advantage if the Report could have been written in rather less technical language. But I have not been able to discover that there is in any essential point any fundamental difference between Mr. Jones's report and that of Sir Henry Walker, and, considering that they approach this question, as they naturally do, from divergent points of view, I think that that is exceptionally satisfactory. For example, this is what Mr. Jones says on page 146 about the inspectorate, and I think that on the whole it is rather mild as compared with what has been said by Sir Henry Walker:The evidence revealed that the visits paid by His Majesty's inspectors to this colliery had been both insufficient and ineffective.I would ask the Secretary for Mines whether that is not borne out entirely by what I have already read from the report of Sir Henry Walker? He mentions particular cases where inspection has been held, it is true, but where it looks to me as though it has been held in quite a casual fashion. I am suggesting that there is not much divergence, except such as is naturally due to the divergent points of view, between the reports of Mr. Jones and of Sir Henry Walker; but when we come to the report of Mr. Brass, which I would like to analyse in some little detail, we are in quite a different category. This, I think, is a most extraordinary document. It consists for the most part of simple ipse dixits which in most cases are not supported by a scrap of evidence. Mr. Brass starts by saying that he disagrees, as is quite natural, with Sir Henry Walker on several important points. One is not surprised at that, but what I am surprised at is that, of the long catalogue of strictures passed by Sir Henry Walker, Mr. Brass does not seem to agree with 1885 one. I cannot understand how anyone who had the privilege of listening to the evidence and cross-examining witnesses could fail to agree with Sir Henry Walker on a single one of these points. I would like to examine a few of them, though I do not wish to detain the House for very long, because I know that there are many others who wish to speak on this Report, which is one of the most terrible reports I have ever tried to read and understand. On page 117 Mr. Brass says this about the evidence of the deputies:In my opinion, the deputies who gave evidence were an intelligent body of men, and had carried out their duties in a manner which was expected of them.There is no reason to doubt the veracity of the deputies. If their evidence is not clear in places, that rather suggests the effect of the hostile atmosphere of the public in the court and the cross-examination by one of the most eminent counsel of the day, the hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps), who is now causing trouble in other places; and the nervous tension from which they and many of the other witnesses were suffering must also be borne in mind. On pages 31–36 Sir Henry Walker deals in very great detail with the evidence of these deputies, and on page 31 he says:They were examined at length on the point and I am struck by what they said and by what they left unsaid about the inspection of 24's airway. Parry, in describing the route he followed when making his first inspection (he was not asked about his second) on 21st September, did not mention 24's haulage road—a road which he was required to inspect—but stressed that he travelled along 24's airway—a road which he was not required to inspect.On page 36 Sir Henry sums up his impression of the deputies. After going into the matter very carefully and quoting at great length from the evidence, he says:The evidence of these two deputies, on this point, does not ring true and I do not accept it as true. I do not believe that 24's airway—which as I have already said I believe to have been a return not an intake—was inspected by either of them on 21st September and I do not believe that it was sufficiently open for inspection on that date.The same applies to the statement with regard to ventilation on page 119, which is contradicted by the inspector on pages 34 and 40. Mr. Brass says at the beginning of his report that the mine was not at all a gassy one, but a fireman named Williams said: 1886Of course it is a gassy mine. Most mines are gassy. You have to take it for granted that they are gassy unless you are quite certain that they are not.He admitted that on many occasions he failed to find evidence of the presence of gas. Mr. Joseph Jones, in his very interesting introduction to his Report, points out that the Gresford Mine is on the east of the Bala Fault, and consequently it is a very dry mine and the presence of gas, he says, in one of the seams is very well known. I could go through a whole catalogue of indictments in which Sir Henry Walker, basing his remarks in every instance on clear evidence, controverts the statements made by Mr. Brass. Indeed, the two reports are parallel in the sense that the conclusions to which Sir Henry Walker comes, after very careful deliberation, in every case contradict the conclusions of Mr. Brass.
I should like, in conclusion, to give just one other quotation. It is a most astounding statement, on page 131, made by Mr. Brass:Technical infringements of the Coal Mines Act and Regulations may have occurred, but in my opinion they did not contribute either directly or indirectly to the cause of the disaster.Was ever such a sentence as that penned in the face of a disaster of that nature? I would like to ask Mr. Brass one simple question: How is it that there are still 254 men down in the Gresford Mine if the conditions were as plausible as he makes them out to be? Really, what we have here is evidence on all sides of whitewashing the management. This is a whitewashed sepulchre, and hon. Members will recollect what was said about the whitewashed sepulchre—that inside you will find men's bones and all rottenness. That is exactly what you find at Gresford to-day. The inquiry was held in order to find out the cause of the disaster. I suggest quite definitely that Mr. Brass was more concerned about shielding certain people than about finding the cause of this terrible disaster.
I understand that the inquiry is not yet quite complete, and I think that it ought to be completed as soon as possible. I know there are difficulties about entering the area that was affected by this terrible explosion, but there are other considerations which make the conclusion of the inquiry imperative. For example, I am told even now that the question of rescue in this and other mines calls for the most 1887 stringent inquiry. I have been told on good authority that the apparatus for rescue, which so flagrantly broke down in this case, is unsatisfactory throughout the North Wales coalfield, and the most stringent inquiry ought to be made because there is a reference, not only to the breakdown of the apparatus, but also to the fact that one of the deputies was responsible for sending a number of men to their deaths. That is a terrible responsibility to lay on the shoulders of any man and he ought to have the opportunity of having his say, because I understand that he was not alone involved in this terrible business, but was advised by an Inspector of His Majesty's Government to proceed to the dangerous part of the mine. That is a question on which I cannot dogmatise, but it is one that ought to be investigated with very great care.
I understand that it is possible that a prosecution may take place. I do not know how wide the net will be and how many people will be involved, but I am certain that in this case, as in others, the real culprits will escape again. I have every sympathy with the manager, the officers and the men in the mine, but behind them are the men who drove them to break the law persistently, men who were far away from the scene of the disaster, enjoying themselves, coursing their greyhounds, or whatever they were doing. They are the men we want to get at, because the management are as helpless as the men are in face of the continuous demand for coal coming from where it may. This is an indictment not of a particular pit, but of a system, and you will never get rid of these difficulties until you get rid of the system. I think Mr. Brass has done a great service, as far as we are concerned, in showing that, however inadequately a mine may be carried on, there is someone ready to whitewash them. There is no whitewashing of disasters of this kind, and I hope the House will take the lesson to heart that we must change the motive of industry before we can be certain that the men's lives are safe.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Peake
I think a coalowner ought to say a few words on an occasion such as this. I should like to preface my remarks with two observations. The first is that I do not speak as a technical 1888 expert. I cannot claim a tenth part of the knowledge of the conditions down the mines that is possessed by a good many hon. Members opposite, but I have discussed this Report with men who are very highly qualified, and I want to express the wish that not only will the Report be read by all the inspectors, but that it will be made available by the coalowners to everyone who is connected with the management of collieries. In the second place, I recognise the very general desire on all sides that we should not say any hard things that can possibly be avoided. I share the feelings of the last speaker. I can understand his feelings when he saw the news of this disaster, because when I cross a street coming down to the House and see on the news bills the headline "Colliery Explosion," or "Pit Disaster," I can assure him that I have a constant fear that it may be at a colliery with which I am myself connected, because accidents will happen even at the best regulated pits.
Therefore, I speak with a feeling of serious responsibility. At the same time, if an explosion did occur at a pit with which I am myself connected, I should feel deeply humiliated if a Report such as this were made. I am told that on the plans alone this pit stands condemned, and if you add to the plans the fact that the ventilation was faulty, and that shot-firing was being carried on with machine-mining at the face—and machine-mining releases four or five times more gas in the course of a shift than the old system of hand-getting—if you put all these things together, you have a combination of circumstances which made disaster absolutely inevitable sooner or later. I think the public are not interested in where this explosion started. They are concerned about the question, how a pit could be in the condition that this pit was? They want to know where responsibility is to be placed, and whether we can learn from the Report any lessons which will serve a good purpose.
I should like to say one or two words on the question of responsibility. I am not speaking entirely of legal responsibility. Legal responsibility rests primarily on the manager of the mine. It is true that the owners can also be prosecuted, but they are given means in the Act, which are not open to the manager, of exonerating themselves. The 1889 responsibility that I want to speak of is the moral responsibility which, in my opinion, rests to some extent upon everyone connected with the Gresford Colliery. The manager in the eyes of the law has to take all the blame. I have known a great many colliery managers, and a very fine body of men they are, but in the system there are certain safeguards which ought to guard against the failure of the colliery manager. They are human beings and, like anyone else, they may lose their judgment, or lose their nerve. There are in the system certain safeguards which then ought to come into operation. At Gresford either those safeguards did not exist, or they failed to operate. The first safeguard, in my opinion, with regard to the position of the colliery manager is the fact that the owners here were very unwise not to have a technical agent either on the board or occupying an official position in the colliery company. I do not think colliery owners have discharged their duties when they have appointed a duly certified colliery manager. I do not think that is going far enough. It is a great advantage to a colliery manager, who has to face many difficult problems, to have someone also qualified, with whom he can talk things over. To that extent I think that at Gresford the owners of the colliery—and by the owners I mean, of course, the board of directors—are to blame in that they had no agent.
The Minister has very ably defended his inspectors, but when we get the Chief Inspector saying in his Report that certain districts in this pit ought to have been closed down, it seems to me that the system of inspection has absolutely failed. The first safeguard against the breakdown of the management, which should have been the existence of either an agent or a consulting engineer, simply was not there, but the second safeguard, the inspectorate, also failed completely in this instance to detect what the trouble was.
In the third place there is the position of the men. The hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell) was very careful not to attack the owners of the colliery, and I am grateful for it. I am not going to attack the men at the colliery, but I think it is very regrettable that the Miners' Union was not strong in the North Wales district. The hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) the other day described 1890 the miners as being the salt of the earth. That is a description with which I, for one, would not quarrel, but it is, I think, the most puzzling part of this terrible disaster that men should have allowed their sons and their relations to go into a pit in the condition in which Gresford was. I agree that, if the union had been strong enough, probably this condition of affairs could not have gone on. I like to see the men whom I have the honour to employ belonging to a union. Whilst I do not think you can expect employers to compel their men to belong to any particular union, I think the Miners' Federation ought to make a great effort in districts like North Wales to increase the union's strength.
Now I turn from the question of responsibility to the inquiry itself. There are three parties to an inquiry of this kind. There is the management, including the owners, there are the men, and there is the inspectorate. I do not think it is fair to put the Chief Inspector in a position where he has to sit in judgment upon his own subordinates, and I agree absolutely with what has been said from the benches below the Gangway opposite and above, that in a case of this kind it would have been a great advantage to have someone with judicial training and with experience in weighing, evidence. I think that that is borne out by the Report itself. There are one or two sentences in the Report to which I want to refer, and I am surprised that they have not been already referred to by hon. Members on the benches opposite. They are to be found on pages 112 and 113. Half-way down page 112 hon. Members will see thatFailure to drive three drifts through the 75 feet big fault … occurred during the late agent's tenure of office, but whether it was he who was in fault or whether he knew what ought to be done and was prevented by those in charge of the commercial side from doing it, I have no means of knowing.Then, at the bottom of the page, hon. Members will find thatMr. Bonsall did say in evidence, that in a matter of finances there had never been any stint; that it was for him to consider what appliances or safety precautions were desirable or necessary and that he had always found that he could get what he wanted in the way of money to carry out his wishes in those respects.In spite of that being the only evidence upon that point the Chief Inspector expressed, at the top of page 113, 1891an uneasy feeling that Mr. Bonsall was overridden.We could not have had an addition of that kind if a man trained in the law had conducted the inquiry. Either that question would have been probed to the bottom as, in my opinion, it ought to have been, or else that uneasy feeling to which the Chief Inspector refers should not have been expressed in the Report.
As regards Gresford we have no knowledge upon that point, but the allegation is frequently made from the benches opposite, both here and in the country, that mine managers have to choose between economy and safety, that there is a constant battle going on between the desire to keep down his costs of production and the expenditure of money upon necessary safety measures. That opinion is widely held on the benches opposite, and it is held to widely differing extents. It is not held by the miners' representatives as a general allegation against all mines at all times. That you will find put before the Royal Commission which has been considering safety in mines. Sir Evan Williams was in the chair giving evidence on 9th February last and he was being examined by the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell), who put this question to him—it is question No. 31,356:I do not suggest that the coalowners would sacrifice safety to profit, but are there not circumstances where a colliery has no resources to carry out what is necessary in the interests of safety?The answer of Sir Evan Williams to what was an extremely fair question, was this:If they cannot do what is essential in the interests of safety, they ought to shut the colliery up.And that is the right reply. The allegation that safety is sacrificed to economy is held to a far greater degree the further the man who makes it becomes removed from the coal industry, and in the hands of, let us say, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), it becomes a charge that in all industry, and at all times and places, safety is sacrificed to economy; and it becomes a condemnation of the whole system of capitalist industry and of the profit motive in industry. You have only to state it as a general proposition to see its absurdity, because if that is true, it is obviously 1892 true of undertakings like the railways, shipping and such an organisation as the London Passenger Transport Board or the Co-operative societies themselves, and of any undertaking which is trying to make both ends meet, to keep its costs down and to pay interest to its stockholders, when providing the service or producing the goods in which it is engaged.
§ Mr. Bevan
The hon. Gentleman will admit that in the industries he has mentioned a uniform and automatic system of safety devices is much more possible than in the mining industry. If he looks at the curve of the accident rate in the pits he will see that the larger number of accidents occur in the middle of the day when most men are more pre-occupied with output than at any other time of the day. It is not that colliery managers have to choose between neglecting the safety of their men and safety devices but an over pre-occupation without methods of safety, which is an entirely different matter.
§ Mr. Peake
The interruption really did not deal with the point I was making. If it is a general allegation that in capitalist industry safety is sacrificed to economy, then, it is equally applicable to those industries of ours which have been socialised or semi-socialised, because they are all aiming at efficiency and keeping down their costs and at having something over with which to pay interest to their stockholders. But I say that you have only to state the general proposition to see how absurd it is. It is more absurd in regard to the mining industry than in regard to any other, and, for these reasons: In the first place, serious disaster to a colliery inflicts very heavy financial losses on the undertaking; and moreover, unlike almost any other industry, we cannot insure against such risks. They are uninsurable, and the whole loss of a disaster must fall upon the colliery itself. Further, the cost of compensation is heavier in the mining industry than in any other, unfortunately, and although this can be covered by insurance to some extent, certainly in the district from which I come, more than half of the cost of compensation is carried by the colliery itself, so that we have large interests in avoiding serious disaster. Even if you limit your allegations to unprofitable pits and to particular unprofitable periods, it still falls to the ground.
1893 There is no evidence statistically—and I feel quite sure that if there was any the Miners' Federation would produce it—that accidents are more frequent at non-profitable pits than they are at profitable ones. Ever since the Coal Mines Act of 1911 was passed, under Section 80 any serious accident has to be reported to the representatives of the men, and it is therefore quite open to the Miners' Federation to collect statistical evidence as to the incidence of fatal and serious accidents at various individual collieries, and I have not the slightest doubt that they have done so. If they have done, I should like to see the evidence produced, because hon. Members and the Miners' Federation can judge, and do in fact know what collieries are profitable and what collieries are not. I have still to see a single shred of evidence that the incidence of accidents is more general at unprofitable collieries than it is at profitable ones, and if I am right, the hon. Member's argument must be that at all times, in order to make a few more pence per ton, we are all ready to sacrifice safety measures. Is that right? Is that the hon. Member's allegation?
§ Mr. Peake
If the hon. Gentleman will not answer my question, I will proceed with my remarks. Hon. Gentlemen opposite are apparently driven to this position, that even collieries which are making good profits are prepared to risk their whole undertaking and the lives of their men in order to make a few pence more per ton.
§ Mr. Peake
I have not had an answer to my question from the hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), so I take it that he is assuming that position. I am glad to think that the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. G. Macdonald) does not. But if it be the profit motive in industry which is the cause of accidents and of the neglect of safety measures, we have, fortunately, one period in the coal industry when there was no profit motive operating at all, and that was the period of coal control between 1916 and 1920. That was a period when wages were high. The hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) told us the other day that this was one of the few decent times that the miners had ever had.
§ Mr. Peake
That is exactly the point I am making. From 1916 to 1920 wages were high. Hon. Members opposite can testify, and did, in fact, testify the other day, that it was one of the few decent times miners had ever had. It was also the fact that the owners were guaranteed their profits; whether they made any or they did not, they were guaranteed the three years' pre-war average of profits, and if they made any more, 95 per cent. went in Excess Profits Duty. That was the period when there was no profit motive in that industry at all, and it is a most remarkable thing that during that period, as you would expect, efficiency fell off tremendously. The output per man-shift went down from just over a ton to 14 cwts., but it is also remarkable that the fall in efficiency was accompanied by a very rapid rise in the accident rate. The accident rate went back practically a generation during those four or five years of coal control.
I do not want to put my argument too high, and I want to be absolutely fair; I am not prepared to say that, if you took the profit motive out of the coal industry to-day, you would necessarily get an immediate rise in the accident rate, but the statistical evidence does not prove that removing the profit motive from industry has the slightest bearing upon the accident rates at all. There were, of course, other causes at work in the later period of the War which accounted to some extent for the rise in the accident rate. One cause was the poor quality of labour. I want to be perfectly fair.
§ Mr. Peake
Yes, but it is a very remarkable thing that with the falling off in efficiency you have a big falling off in safety. Efficiency and safety are, I believe, more closely connected than some hon. Members think. I believe that efficiency in the coal industry very largely means that you are looking after the comfort and welfare of your men.
§ Mr. Bevan
There have been conferences held recently about safety in mines and there have been suggestions urging that steel arches would be a very great contribution towards the reduction of accidents caused by falls. How is it that these steel arches have not been more universally adopted and why have they been adopted so slowly?
§ Mr. Peake
The hon. Member must not by his interruptions provoke me into expressing opinions that might lead to a certain amount of feeling between the two sides of the House. He knows as well as I do why steel arching has not been introduced more quickly. I am a great believer in it, and want to see it introduced much faster than at the present time, but there have been on both sides of the industry prejudices to be overcome in regard to the introduction of steel supports. I have said that I believe that efficiency and safety very largely go hand-in-hand. I would go so far as to say that economy and safety, using the word "economy" in the true sense of the word, also go hand-in-hand. There are two things that we must aim at if we are to improve the conditions of safety in the pits. The first is by better inspection to try and bring the more backward mines up to the level of the best. The second is that we should make inspections more frequently at the mines where trade unions are weak. Where the trade unions are strong, generally speaking, conditions are fairly good. It is in the smaller districts where the unions are weak that we should concentrate the efforts of the inspectorate.
May I say this in conclusion? Let nobody think that I, or any other coal-owner, am at all satisfied with the rather disappointing progress which we have made in the reduction of the accident rate in the last four or five years. After all that has been done by the Safety in Mines Research Board, by the Colliery Owners' Research Association, by the introduction of hard hats, and all sorts of protective clothing, it is very disappointing to find the accident rate as high as it is to-day, and that very little progress 1896 has been made in the last five years. I think that is largely clue to the introduction of the new technique in coalmining, to which we have to try and adapt ourselves. In doing so, let us hope that some good suggestions may come out of the Report of the Royal Commission which is sitting at the present time. As a coalowner I shall welcome and support anything which that Royal Commission suggests. I believe that the field of safety is one in which co-operation between both sides of the industry can be more fruitful at the present time than in any other.
§ 6.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Ritson
We have listened to a speech from an hon. Member whom we are always glad to hear, because of his practical knowledge. He is sometimes very frank and very honest with regard to his own side. I am pleased that he has acknowledged that the inquiry, as such, has not been satisfactory in its personnel or in its findings. I am sorry, however, that he was led away into dealing with another form of safety. We are not dealing with supports but with reports on one of the most tragic accidents that this country has ever experienced. We are dealing, among other vital things, with the neglect of ventilation, which is so vital.
The Minister made a mistake at the beginning of his speech. When it was clear that we should ask the Government for a day to discuss this subject there were general murmurs among hon. Members opposite to the effect that we were trying to rake up old sores, that we were causing grief again among the people who have suffered, and that it would be better to hide it away and to let it remain buried, just as the men are buried in the mine. I can assure the Minister that there is not a widow, a sister or a mother among those who have suffered who would not reopen the wound if by so doing they could help to improve matters for the future, through their suffering. If there is one thing of which we are proud, it is our women and their bravery. Rather than this sort of thing should happen again, we know that they are willing to have the whole thing reopened at any time.
My hon. Friend who moved the Motion has a remarkable knowledge of pit work. I have come across many people with certificates whose knowledge of mines was 1897 a disgrace. I am not saying that out of any disrespect. There are some people in this category who have had no practical experience. You cannot carry out the working of a mine without good experience. I remember one man who had a salary of £1,500, coming to me at 6 o'clock in the morning and talking in the most elementary way about the work that I should have done. Fortunately, he was followed by the practical manager, who corrected him at every point. In Durham some of the best managers we have ever had have come up from the bottom; men we have reared. They have not had the sort of education you get at a university, but by their practical knowledge they have been of far greater use to the owners and the men than many people we are relying on to-day.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell) went into details from the technical point of view, and I shall leave the other side to the hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps). I want to put a practical point of view. Nothing has pleased me more to-day than the statement of the Minister that the Government will try from now onwards to prevent a recurrence of this sort of disaster. I wish he would get on with it. He need not wait for the Royal Commission's findings. Surely, he has regulations under which he can give the inspectors instructions to examine the pits more frequently. I should like to correct him on one point. He said that the inspectors never had any complaints. Surely, he does not expect the management of the mines to shout stinking fish. Is the manager of a mine going to send for a Government inspector, who may censure him for neglecting his duty? We are noted in Durham for having our own inspectors. Complaints are made to the Miners' Union, not monthly but daily. Let me give an example. We had one case with regard to ventilation in a pit, 3,000 feet deep. It was said that the miners' lamps were going out. I sent to Newcastle for the head inspector. He is still alive and a very practical man. The manager objected to the inspector going down a pit on a Saturday, at that hour. He said it was most unusual for a Government inspector to go down on a Saturday. The inspector was manly enough to tell the manager that it did not matter what the danger was, he was going down to stop it, and 1898 he stopped work in that part of the pit until the matter had been cleared up.
I would ask the Secretary for Mines not to ask his inspectors to wait until there is a complaint from the owners but to go and find out for themselves. When there has been an accident to a man's limb they make inspection, and when there has been a fatal accident they go to the place where the accident took place, but the inspector does at the same time go with his lamp to see whether there is any gas. He inspects the place where perhaps there has been a fall of roof, or where there has been an inlet of water. I would ask that the inspectors should go round more regularly seeking for possible gas and water. Those are the two things of which we are most afraid. In this particular case, Peter Lee, who was at the inquiry, whom I have always considered to be one of the most practical pitmen in the country, told me that in his opinion it was the bottleneck area that caused all the trouble. I am sure that when the pit is cleared Peter's prophecy will prove to be true. The Minister ought to press on and get the pit cleared and examined. He says that it will be very costly. We have had some severe explosions in North Cumberland, but we have opened the pits within a reasonable time. I believe that the cost of opening the pit would be more than repaid if we could find something practical that would help us in the future to avoid such disasters.
I hope that the Minister will deal with the question of the inspectorate and safety regulations fearlessly. Speaking for Durham, we have been fortunate in the last few years. We have examinations by an inspectorate, fully qualified, as well as inspections by men brought up in the mines. The Minister referred to Mr. Emerson. He inspects the colleries from which I come. Not only do we have him, but we have our own local inspectors, and we make payment from our own union fund. In every district there is a lodge meeting, where the first things attended to are complaints by any men if there happens to be danger in their area. In such a case a deputation goes the next day to the pit, and if they are not satisfied with the manager's reply, we bring in Mr. Emerson immediately. We have local inspectors appointed every quarter, and they do their duty and make reports if they find anything that is dangerous. 1899 That is not only a good thing for the men, but a good thing for the owners also.
The House must consider this matter with an unbiased mind, because the general public have come to the conclusion that the miners are entitled, after this horrible disaster, to have all the regulations which are necessary for safety in the mines. I can assure the Secretary for Mines that we shall give him all the support we can if he will apply greater pressure on the mine managers. I can assure him that we shall never be safe until the inspectors are independent of the owners. The hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) said that there were certain owners who do not bully their managers for output, but for every one he can name who does not do so, I can name 50 who do. Very often deputations are told that the manager does not have his own way and that he is being pressed for output. I have known managers who have come to the pit in the early morning and examined it for gas or water, and I have also known managers who did not attend to their work in this way.
It is no use having this Report unless some action is taken upon it. We may take the legal side or the technical side, we may condemn or wish for punishment, but the thing which matters most now is that from this catastrophe we may learn how to provide for better safety in our mines. I am thankful to the Government for giving us this opportunity to discuss the matter. We cannot help but feel very keenly about it. No man who has lived in a colliery area and experienced any of these disasters can speak calmly. It is most difficult; and what we are all concerned about is that we should all work towards the one end—the greater safety of the life of 750,000 men who ask that they should not be in danger of being trapped like rats in our mines, and that whatever laws and regulations are necessary, no matter however expensive, they should be put into force in order to give them some confidence in their arduous work.
§ 6.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Lyons
It was said by the Secretary for Mines in the course of a careful, complete and highly sympathetic review of the situation that this discussion was inevitable, but that he hoped it would 1900 not reopen the grief of many of those concerned in the disaster. After listening to the graphic and moving picture put before us by the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell), with his great knowledge and capacity, I make no apology for intervening in the Debate although I do not represent any coal mining constituency or interest. This appalling document dealing with a great calamity cannot be discussed in any watertight compartment merely by those who represent coal mining areas. It reflects on the whole national conscience; we all have a responsibility to do what we can to ensure that the tragedy which underlies this document does not occur again. In my judgment it is incumbent upon all of us to regard ourselves as the custodians of people working in dangerous occupations and to do what we can to co-operate in any matters for their safety as representatives of the national conscience.
The national conscience was touched very much by this occurrence and by this Report. It is a very sorry document. I do not propose to dwell fully on extracts from it but I want to ask one or two questions. I want to know, in the first place, what additional safeguards will be taken so that we may have some assurance that there will be no recurrence of a tragedy like this. In the course of Sir Henry Walker's observations he says that in this pit there werecontinuing offences against the law to which, as I consider, numbers of the workmen were parties, and in general it was a distressing feature that there were so many workmen, who, according to their evidence, knew of and were alarmed at conditions which they considered dangerous and yet took no steps to secure for themselves or their fellow-workers the protection to which they thought they were entitled.That represents a state of things which no one would defend. In his Report Sir Henry Walker makes it clear thatwork on 95's and 24's faces should have been stopped until the place (105's) being driven to the dip from 81's level had holed, and, in order to get more air into the inbye districts, 29's districts should also have been stopped and the leakage of air direct into the return by way of 29's Turn prevented.I go a little further and read with regard to ventilation—a very crucial factor in the consideration of the catastrophe:The total quantity of air in the intakes in January was 35353 and in July 43,103 cubic feet per minute. It was unfortunate, of course, that the last figures, those for July, were, to the manager's knowledge fictitious, 1901 but even when they are substituted by those for June the answer given by the manager was merely misleading, for, although the quantity of air according to the figures in the Dennis intake had increased from 35,353 cubic feet per minute in January to 43,065 in June the proportion of those quantities which arrived at the place where the first split was taken off was again according to the figures 90 per cent in January and only 51 per cent. in June.And Sir Henry Walker says on this matter:I can place no real reliance on these figures, but it was on them that the manager said an improving state of affairs was shown, whereas they showed exactly the contrary.When we read things of this nature we are appalled at what is happening in defiance of all the regulations this House has passed to ensure safety in mines. May I ask what is being done to end this state of affairs? Is this inquiry to be in vain? Are there going to be inspections which are real and regular inspections, and reports which will be real reports? Can we enlarge the channels for complaints and reports? It occurs to me that if there had been proper investigation and regular inspection of this mine by officers of the Department this state of affairs could have been detected before the loss of 265 lives occurred to bring this matter under the notice of Parliament. Are these real inspections? Are there real inquiries as to whether the law is being carried out or not and are the results of these investigations properly and promptly acted upon? I am at a loss to know why this state of affairs was not found out if a thorough inspection was made by the officers of the Department appointed for the purpose.
I do not want to cast aspersions upon anyone, but I should like to know how it is that these flagrant breaches and evasions of the law could go on in these monumental proportions, not isolated breaches of the law, not apparently some winking at a technical omission here and there, but these wholesale evasions of the many regulations and carefully thought-out safeguards to secure the safety of people employed underground. The hon. Member for Gower gave us a grim and sad story. Hon. Members who do not represent mining areas would be the first to support the Government in any additional measures that may be necessary to secure greater safeguards for those working in dangerous occupations. If new legislation is wanted, I hope it will be 1902 brought in forthwith. If the safeguards are not sufficient, let us have more; if the inspectorate is not sufficient, let us have more, and a more thorough inspection.
I want to say a few words on the nature of the tribunal. A gentleman called Mr. Joseph Jones, who sat as an assessor, took a very strong view. He called this mine a "veritable gasometer." He regards it as a place seething with danger. That is a very serious allegation by a gentleman who was appointed to a serious and responsible duty and whose abilities were understood by the Minister who appointed him. It is a very serious thing, and I say at once that I very much regret that appraisement of evidence, giving rise to a finding of that nature, should be entrusted to a tribunal like this. In my view it is essentially an inquiry for judicial consideration. It must not be thought that I am saying a word of criticism about Sir Henry Walker as to the work he has done or as to his capacity. But no ministerial officer should be in charge of a tribunal dealing with a matter in which great public issues are involved. I venture to think public opinion is quite clear on this point. The Secretary for Mines said that it was all very well to be wise after the event and make a suggestion ex post facto. I want to remind the House that on 23rd November, 1931, a statement was made by Mr. Isaac Foot, who was then Secretary for Mines, in connection with the Bentley Colliery disaster, a terrible explosion in which 43 persons were killed. Mr. Foot, a gentleman of great integrity, assiduity and courage, in reply to a question, said that he was going to hold an inquiry as soon as circumstances would permit. I asked him—and this was on 23rd November, 1931—When such an inquiry is held, in view of the great public interest involved, will the hon. Gentleman consider making representations to secure the services of one of His Majesty's judges to preside over the inquiry?He replied:Such a course would be entirely unusual and would not serve the purpose of eliciting information."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd November, 1931; col. 47, Vol. 260.]I thought then, and I think now, one of His Majesty's Judges should be the Court to inquire into any such calamity. We are dealing with what, I hope, is a very unusual occurrence. Bentley was a great tragedy. Gresford is a tragedy of much bigger dimensions. I hope the 1903 Minister will not say that, because it is unusual, such a proposal cannot be considered if, unhappily, we have other tragedies in future. When there is a disaster like this, entailing loss of life, I urge the Minister to say that it is a case where no officer of his Department shall preside over the inquiry, but that it is a matter where the experience and independence of one of His Majesty's Judges should be obtained so that we could have it inquired into by one in whom on every ground there is complete confidence, and the public feeling can be allayed as much as possible. Mr. Jones was right in a statement he made that one of His Majesty's Judges should be allowed to preside over an inquiry of this grave public magnitude.
Everyone wants to see that so far as is possible there is brought into the common pool every device to make the lives of these men more safe. Let it not be said that this was discussed to-day and then dismissed without further consideration. I am sure the Minister is not going to do that. Arising out of this we can lay the foundations for a better and safer livelihood for miners; we can see there have been errors and omissions which should never have happened; that there was in this colliery a state of affairs wholly indefensible, so indefensible that they will, I trust, never be allowed to occur again; and that if the inspectorate has to be increased one hundred-fold, it will be done so that we may never see another tragedy of this kind.
§ 7.4 p.m.
§ Mr. G. Macdonald
I was displeased and rather surprised at the statement the Minister made. I wondered during some parts of it whether there had been an explosion, and I am certain I was not helped to find whether there was anybody responsible for it. The Minister staggered me by the manner in which he tried to whitewash the inspectorate. We have no desire to blame this person or the other, but we realise that there is somebody, somewhere, responsible for the tragedy that happened at Gresford. Sir Henry Walker made no attempt to whitewash the inspectorate, although he was head of the Department. He was prepared to come down heavily on the inspectorate. Surely either the workmen, or the officials, or the inspectorate, or somebody could have done something to avoid the 1904 disaster. It is as well, if we want to avoid a repetition of it, to find out on whom the responsibility did lie.
The Minister of Mines is dissatisfied with the lack of complaints by workmen where complaints could be made, and I was glad to hear him say so. I hope that if the Press reports this discussion to-morrow there will be a headline—"Minister of Mines dissatisfied with lack of complaints regarding unsatisfactory conditions in mines." But it is necessary that the workmen should be told that it is in their own interests, and that it is their duty, to make complaints of everything they find unsatisfactory. I want the Minister to remember the reason why they do not make these complaints. Sir Henry Walker knows, and he has told us—a fear of victimisation. I do not know anyone who has been actually sacked the moment he has made a report of the presence of gas. Mine managers do not do things in that way. They wait for another occasion and try to suggest that the dismissal is due to something else. The hon. Member for the University of Wales (Mr. E. Evans) had some doubts regarding victimisation. He has not been a miners' agent, or he would have had no doubts. The Minister, to achieve his object, must let the men know that if they do complain they are in no danger of victimisation.
I can believe, as Sir Henry Walker suggests, that the men who knew things were wrong at Gresford were not prepared to say so. If the Minister is anxious that that possibility should be removed, he must do something to enable these men to realise that they are in no danger of unfair treatment if they find anything unsatisfactory. I hope he will repeat the need for complaint by workmen where complaint should be made. Sir Henry Walker singles out for mention the deputies. He has told us that he has doubts of the evidence they submitted. The evidence of the deputies is very conflicting. I want the. Minister to understand that there is no more important official in the mine than the deputy. If he will go further into this question he will find that to some extent they are the most important officials where explosions are concerned. But a deputy to-day is regarded as something in addition to being an official to carry out the regulations. He is expected to help to increase the output.
1905 I know in Lancashire a number of deputies who have been dismissed because they paid so much attention to their statutory duties that they were not able to pay sufficient attention to output. I can give the Minister a number of names of deputies who were dismissed because the output from their districts was not regarded as satisfactory. There was no hint of complaint regarding their statutory duty. If the deputy neglects his work it will lead inevitably to a serious accident. Again I ask the Minister to consider doing something to enable deputies to carry out their statutory duties even at the neglect of output. I had a case in my own division of a number of deputies, all employed at the same colliery, who were treated very harshly, although they were carrying out their statutory duties, because they were accused of neglecting output. Names can be given to the Minister if he would like to have them.
Even the under-manager is entitled to be considered. To get and keep a job as an under-manager to-day is not easy. The number of mines is decreasing and there is greater competition, and the under-managers are much concerned about pleasing their employers. I submit to the Minister that these things can be done immediately. I was pleased that he told us something he was going to do immediately. It is possible to tell the workmen, and the deputies, and the under-managers, and possibly the managers, too, that if they are concerned in a case of dismissal consequent on or subsequent to the reporting of the presence of gas, or the spending of money in dealing with the presence of gas, they will be entitled to have their cases heard by a tribunal. There is no other way. I have known workmen dismissed six months after they had made a report of the presence of gas. The manager had forgotten all about the report. I have my doubts. When a person is dismissed consequent on the reporting of the presence of gas, or of doing something unacceptable to the manager, surely there should he some tribunal. I do not mind if the Minister says the divisional inspector should hear the case. I would accept it.
The Minister told us there is nothing wrong with the inspection, and that all inspectors have been kept on. I am pleased they have; I want to see no one dismissed. But there are inspections and 1906 inspections. After every fatal or serious accident there is an inspection, but the inspectors attend the scene of the accident and nothing more. I am not complaining about that, but when I am told that there have been a certain number of inspections over a certain period, I know it includes inspections of that kind. I do not expect the inspector to go underground and look round all the workings on the same day as he attends for that purpose. Those of us who have spent a few years underground know the difficulty of getting about, and the strain on the physique. But if the Minister can increase the inspectorate without waiting for the Report of the Commission now sitting—I do not think Sir Henry Walker would stand in his way—it would permit a greater number of inspections to be made.
It is suggested that a 12-monthly inspection would not necessarily have prevented this accident at Gresford. I agree, but I suggest that it would have been more likely to do so than the three-yearly inspection which goes on to-day. The purpose of this Debate is to prevent the repetition of such disasters. The Minister has to wait for the Report of the Commission, but I do not want him to tell us that there is nothing more he can do immediately because the Commission is sitting. The hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) can give a case of two colliers being sacked because they prevented a shot-firer from firing a shot in the presence of gas. If the Minister is going to deal with the question of workmen neglecting to complain and the question of deputies, he must realise that behind all their reluctance to report things which endanger their own lives as well as the lives of their fellow workers, there is some very strong reason. I appeal to the hon. and gallant Gentleman, in his reply, to make some reference to the provision of machinery whereby men who are dismissed as a consequence of making a report on the presence of gas will have a right to make an appeal to the tribunal which he sets up.
This Debate will end to-night, but like the hon. and learned Gentleman for East Leicester (Mr. Lyons), I hope that attention to the disaster will not end to-night. There is involved the whole question of the 750,000 men who are working in the mining industry. A short time ago there was an explosion in my 1907 own division, and I lost 27 of the finest friends I ever had. I should have lost 270 if the explosion had taken place two hours later, for it happened that the shift was being changed. I have met the dependants of those men during the last few weeks, and I can assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the remarks in the early part of his speech were entirely unnecessary. We have raised this issue solely with a view to trying to prevent others being bereaved in the future. I ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman, in his reply, to indicate that he is prepared to take immediate steps to deal with this terrible problem.
§ 7.18 p.m.
Like my hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Leicester (Mr. Lyons), I do not at present represent a mining constituency, but nobody can have represented a Durham Division for 16 years without hearing a great deal, and learning something, about coal. I do not propose to enter into the details of this lamentable accident, although I agree with all the criticisms that have been levelled against the condition of things that prevailed at Gresford. I want to see whether we cannot find some way of preventing these catastrophes. Are they to continue, not quite to the same extent, but still with a terrible loss of human life, or can we find some better way of ensuring safety in mines? I assure the Minister that he will have public opinion behind him in whatever measures he takes, no matter how drastic they are, for people's minds are profoundly stirred by the general question and by this terrible disaster. My hon. and, gallant Friend would signalise his tenure of office in a very noble way if he could leave the conditions in mines better than they were when he became Secretary for Mines.
From the Report and the speeches that have been made, it is clear that the ventilation was very bad at Gresford, and that gas was present, not occasionally, but constantly and in large quantities. I want, to plead for the use—if possible the compulsory use—of some sort of automatic gas detector. Does an automatic gas detector exist, could its use be made compulsory, and if so, would its use prevent some of these terrible accidents? I plead for the use of such a detector, partly because of its efficiency 1908 and partly because of its impersonality. If such a detector were used, the detection of gas would not depend on a human being, who might be fallible. A reference has been made to victimisation, but if there were an automatic detector, all fear of victimisation would vanish. The mine which we are now discussing was, above all, one in which some sort of automatic alarms ought to have been fitted. Mr. Joseph Jones referred to 14's as a veritable gasometer. I ask the Minister whether there are other mines in which the conditions are as deplorable as those which are disclosed in the Report, because if there are, it is a very serious matter. Moreover, does not the Minister think that it is reasonable to believe that automatic detectors would have given warning in time at Gresford, and have saved those lives? If so, has not the time for action arrived?
I am not an inventor and am not personally interested in any detector, but some hon. Members were present at a demonstration and saw that if the ventilation was stopped where we were, the electric lights would become red. That was a genuine demonstration. I do not know whether the instrument is reliable, because I am not a scientist and cannot decide the matter from that point of view, but certainly it was a genuine experiment, and was carried out, not by the owner of the instrument, but by the management of the pit. It seems to me that the case for an automatic alarm is a very strong one. I would like to ask the Minister whether, since the accident, the Gresford management have installed any sort of automatic alarm. I know there is a Royal Commission on Safety in Mines, which has not yet reported, and I conceive that this is one of the questions on which it will report; but I think the matter is so important that if my hon. and gallant Friend, whose sincerity the whole House knows and recognises, could expedite the report on this special question, which seems to me to lie right at the heart of the means of preventing deaths from such accidents, it would be something which he might very properly do. It would be lamentable if, when the House has been unanimous, as it has been to-night, the Debate concluded without some definite action being promised which would prevent such accidents occurring. I believe the Minister has 1909 power to compel owners to instal any sort of gas-detecting instrument which he pleases. Has not the time arrived when he should take such an action? I know I am pleading with one who is just as anxious as I am to save these lives, and I should be glad if he could tell me whether—and, if so, how soon—any steps are to be taken in that direction.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Mr. G. Griffiths
I am sorry the hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) is not in his place, because I wanted to have two or three minutes of cut-and-thrust debate, in accordance with the advice which you, Sir, once gave us. The hon. Member for North Leeds said that the owners did not appear to be worried about costs. I happen to know, as a working miner, although I am not quite up to date, that the owners, the managing directors, the managers and the under-managers are very much concerned about costs. When I worked at the coal-face, and had so much dead work for my mates and myself to put in, the deputy said to me, "George, I want thee to leave a bit of that over this week, because the under-manager has been on to me about my costs." That is not something I have read in a book from America or somewhere else, but is something I have heard repeatedly. The under-manager is told to work the district on cheaper ripping costs, or somebody else will have to do the job.
I am sorry the hon. Member for North Leeds is not here, because he comes from Yorkshire, as I do. I made a statement in the House the other week concerning nystagmus. The hon. Member is an owner and he came to me afterwards and said, "I did not know that was appertaining; I went to see the general manager and asked him, and he said it was." It is of no use the hon. Member for North Leeds trying to "put across" hon. Members on these benches that cost does not count, because we have proof that if there are two under-managers in a firm, the manager pits those two under-managers against one another on the cost of their ripping. Anybody who has read the Report knows that at Gresford the deputies were falling out with one another on the question of ventilation. It was a most disgraceful affair. The colliery was badly ventilated. One deputy said to the 1910 other, "Come on, don't keep that door open too much, because it is robbing me of my ventilation."
Anybody who looks at the plans belonging to Gresford can tell immediately, if he is a practical miner, that it was impossible to run that pit as they were running it without something very bad happening. Anybody studying the plan could see a little bit of a district here, and another there, and still another round the corner, and that they were trying to filter air round this and round the other. The under-manager stated in his evidence, "If I can only get 25 per cent. of the air that comes down the shaft around the face, I am satisfied." I know that one or two of our chaps say, "We are not bothered about what has happened." I am bothered about what has happened, because I do not want it to happen anywhere else.
On Whit Saturday in May, 1899, I worked my last shift in the North Wales coalfield, and I swore that I would never do another shift in that coalfield, and I have never done one since. I came off frightened. I was afraid of my life, as a lad 21 years of age. When I got the paper on a Saturday morning stating that there were so many men in an explosion at Gresford, I said, "I know what has happened. There are some serious breaches of the Coal Mines Act, or this thing could not occur." I want to relate this as a personal experience. On 21st September, on a Friday night, a man who had been in the same class as I in a Church of England school was going to his work in that pit, 6½ miles away. He was going to catch a train at eight o'clock at night, and one of my relations said to him, "Jack, you are going for the last time." He said, "Yes." Miners, when it is the last shift, say "the last time," because they begin a fresh week after Saturday. It was the last shift of the week, and my relative said to this man, a great, big, smart fellow, "You are going for the last time." His name is in this Report, and his address too. He turned round to my relation and said, "Yes, we shall go for the last time, and never come back. We shall be blown to hell," and he is down that pit to-day. He was in the same class as I was at school.
These men knew what was happening in the pit, and they knew what would occur, in a sense. Somebody on the 1911 other side says, "Why did they work?" Economic circumstances forced them to work. That is why they worked. They went with a lamp in their hands knowing the conditions as far as that pit was concerned, and I say quite frankly that these men were sacrificed at the shrine of profit. As the number of men increased at the pit, the number of deputies decreased. I have the figures here, and they show that in 1930 there were 1,533 underground workers and 34 deputies, and in 1934 there were 1,692 men down and 31 deputies, a reduction of three deputies and an increase of over 160 men. There is something else. In 1930 there were 49 coal-cutting machine men, and in 1934 there were 60, or an increase of 11. There was an increase of 160 men altogether and a reduction of three in the number of men who were responsible for the safety of the mine. There was speeding up, and the production increased from 406,037 tons to 476,076 tons. They were pushing them for production. When I read this Report, my hair stood on end. Men who are supposed to be managing districts firing 45 shots—a deputy, not a shot-firer—besides superintending the safety of the district. I am not the same as Mr. Brass, who says that you ought to let deputies fire. I say that no deputy should fire any shot at all.
The right hon. and gallant Member for Ripon (Major Hills) referred to the automatic fire-damp alarm. Before I came into this House the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) and other miners' Members had put questions, not only to the present Minister of Mines, but to the Minister of Mines previous to him, and also to Mr. Isaac Foot when he was Minister for Mines. They had repeatedly said, "Look here, when are you going to issue an order to make it law that every mine must have an automatic firedamp alarm?" The reply has always been, "Well, we are just waiting; we are finding out," and while they are finding out, men are being blown into eternity. We had an answer to-day by the Minister of Mines which stated that during the last 10 years there have been 113 explosions. I have had four in my own division since the Gresford explosion. I woke up one morning last August, and there in the clover were 58 men blown to eternity, and on the grass in another field there were 19 men, from an ex- 1912 plosion, and over the other side, on the front corner of my house, there were 10 men, and all inside a few months, in my own division.
I am quite satisfied that a lot of these explosions could be prevented if the Minister of Mines would pluck up courage and say to the coalowners, "There has got to be an automatic fire-damp detector in the pit." What is the cost of one? I have a report here of a colliery company which has put these things in. They are working them, and the cost of this Ringrose detector—I do not care whether it is a Ringrose or another rose as long as we have it—is 0.076 of a penny per ton. They have had it going now for some few years. What does the automatic fire-damp alarm do? It is, as the right hon. and gallant Member for Ripon said, not a matter of a man testing for gas himself. It is there. It is the bobby. You can set it to 1¼, 1½ or 2½ per cent., and you cannot get an explosion in a mine unless there is at least 5 to 5½ per cent. of gas there. Immediately this automatic alarm gets to 1½ or 2½, according as it is set, this light is there, and to the man who is on the face, to the lad who is on the haulage, and to the man who is in the ripping, or wherever he is, the lamp says, "There is 2½ per cent. of gas here; you must get out."
I have been inspecting pits as a workmen's inspector, and I have said to the deputy or to the under-manager, "Look here, how much percentage is there here?" "Well," he has said, "about 1½ or 2 per cent.," and then he would argue with me as to whether there was 2 or 2½ per cent. I had an under-manager during the War argue, when I was doing a pit inspection, that there had to be 2½ per cent. of gas in the general body of the air. I said, "God have mercy on you, for in that case I do not know where we should be. Is that your reading of the Act? We will ask the inspector to-morrow, and he shall decide who is right." He said, "Never mind, George, don't bother." What I want to emphasise about this matter is that if this detector had been in that Gresford pit, this explosion could not have occurred. I make bold to say that.
We have three reports here, and all three give a different conjecture as to where the explosion occurred. Suppose it occurred where Mr. Brass says he 1913 thinks it occurred, near the clutch at the junction of 29's district. If there had been an alarm in that main face, there would have been nobody going to that telephone, because the alarm would have given them notice. If the explosion had occurred, as Sir Henry thinks it occurred, at the shot-firing, then the men would have had the automatic detector close to them, and it would have said, "There is 2½ per cent. of gas here," and the men would have had to clear out. Let me say that I am with Mr. Jones 100 per cent. and that personally I feel that the explosion occurred at that 14's district, a veritable gasometer, with men 20 yards from the face. One of the deputies kept telling some of the men that they had got to crawl on their stomachs to fetch something out. Why did they crawl on their stomachs? It was because the gas was above and the air below, but there would have been no sending them to crawl on their stomachs if they had had this detector there.
I am pleading with the Minister. He said, "We cannot do very great things, you know, because this Commission is sitting, and we have to wait to see what it recommends." You have no need to wait for the report of the Royal Commission on Safety in Mines before you can send out an order to say that every pit must have this automatic detector in the pit. If that were done, I am satisfied that there would be far fewer explosions than we have had. It is a most remarkable thing that we are getting more explosions now. We had two in Derbyshire the other day, and we are far more fearful with these coal-cutting machines than we were in the past. If the cutter strikes a piece of brass or piece of stone and it sparkles, there is an explosion.
We are desirous that this thing shall not occur as often as it is occurring now. I would have liked to read a part of a report of a big colliery company who have put this detector into operation, but I feel that I am standing in the way of some of my colleagues. The report states that two or three times when danger has come upon them almost like a thief in the night because of doors being smashed by a runaway, or because of the ventilation having broken down owing to a fall of earth, the gas detector has given the alarm. The ventilation of the pit at the beginning of the shift was good, there was a fall on the main part of the face, 1914 and the detector warned the men to get out. If there had been no detector there the possibility is that the men working on piece rates would never have got out. The piece rate system should be abolished. We are told that it cannot be managed, but you have no piece rate in the Army, or the Navy, or the Civil Service. You have no piece rate at the Post Office. We do not work on piece rate here. If we were paid by piece rate, a lot of chaps would get nothing at all. If this detector had not been there the possibility is that there would have been a localised explosion on that face.
I agree with every word that Mr. Jones says about future inquiries. If there is an inquiry at the present time the divisional inspector determines the entire course of it. He also selects the witnesses and decides the order of calling them. Fancy leaving this to the divisional inspector at Gresford, who stated that he had not time to go to the pit. I am not going to be so mealy-mouthed about inspectors as some other Members have been. Sir Stafford Cripps put this question to Mr. Boydell:So that you really have not had time to make inspections at Gresford? Is that the position?The answer was:That is the position.Dominy made 13 visits and did not report on any of the conditions in the mines. Probably it was because 13 was an unlucky number. Sir Stafford Cripps put this question to Mr. Charlton:You are entirely dependent upon the sub-inspectors or junior inspectors, whoever it is who visits the pits, to draw your attention to anything?The answer was:Yes, I am afraid so. That is the position.This is a man who has had to arrange all these inquiries. He is the man who calls the witnesses. I do not believe that Sir Henry Walker, the chief inspector, or whoever may be chief inspector in future, should be the chairman of any inquiry. He sits as the judge, and he is there as prosecutor and as defendant. I hope that in future, if anything like this happens again, we shall have a judiciary as chairman. I hope that out of Gresford, at least, something will come to save our lads who are risking their lives to produce coal for the nation.
§ 7.52 p.m.
§ Mr. A. Henderson
I intervene in this Debate with some hesitation because, like some other hon. Members, I have no practical knowledge of coal mining. Having regard, however, to my association with the Gresford inquiry and to the fact that with my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell) I sat through the 30 sittings and heard all the evidence, I hope that I may be allowed to give the House some of the impressions I formed. May I make a personal reference to the Commissioner? Speaking for myself, I found him to be the personification of courtesy and patience, for he made no attempt to prevent any evidence being adduced no matter how irrelevant it may have been. I think that those who may be a little disappointed with his Report should, at any rate, have regard to the fact that not only the Commissioner and his assessors, but all of us who were engaged at that inquiry, were very much handicapped by the fact that we had not been able to make an inspection of the area of the explosion and were thereby, as the Commissioner points out in this Report, debarred from verifying and checking up the great mass of evidence.
At the same time, I agree with those hon. Members who have criticised the nature of the tribunal. I was glad to hear what the Minister had to say in regard to the future. Although I am not prepared to say that the chief inspector is one of the guilty ones, I say that he has an indirect responsibility, and perhaps a direct responsibility, for the operations of his inspectors. In so far as any inspector has been guilty of a dereliction of duty in any way, to that extent the responsibility comes upon the chief inspector himself. I agree with the suggestion that has been made from various quarters that in an inquiry of any magnitude in future—and heaven forbid that one should take place—I hope that someone other than the Chief Inspector with judicial experience, and assisted by assessors similar to Mr. Brass and Mr. Jones, will be appointed to conduct the investigation. While it was not possible to make any inspection of the area of the explosion and thereby determine a fortiori the cause of the explosion, we were and are to-day confronted with a mass of evidence on both sides dealing with the conditions obtaining in the mine prior to the ex- 1916 plosion. I feel that the following conclusions which I propose to put to the House are incontrovertible. First, with regard to the management of the mines, the impression I formed at the time, and which to some extent has been corroborated by the findings of the Commission, was that the management was both slack and inefficient, and, so far as night operations were concerned, there seems to have been no management at all. The Commissioner himself refers to this fact in these terms:Mr. Bonsall (that is, the manager) visited the several districts in the Dennis Section from time to time, but as he explained in evidence, for the two months before the explosion he had spent most of his time in the South-East Section where the belt conveyors were being installed. He had been underground during the night shift, but it was so long ago he could not remember when.That is the evidence of the manager himself. Then we have the under-manager, Mr. Williams, who incidentally—and I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Gower and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) would agree with me—showed himself to be a good practical workman. He had the supervision of the Dennis Section during the day shift, and he said that he was underground during the night shift on the 27th April and 7th August, but, apart from these visits, he was not able to exercise any supervision during the night shifts. Then Mr. Frederick John Davies was an overman who was supposed to be in charge of the night shift and exercise supervision in the Dennis Section where the explosion took place. The Commissioner states:The last time before the explosion that he had been in the face of any of the workings in the Dennis Section was on 21st August when he was along the face of 14's district.If my recollection is correct, in my cross-examination of Mr. Davies he admitted that he spent the whole of his time in the South-East Section of the pit, which is away from the Dennis Section, and that it was only now and again that he ever took the trouble to go into that part of the mine.
I should like to express my agreement with the conclusions of the Commissioner on pages 112 and 113 with regard to the general supervision of the mine. The Gresford case exemplifies the dangers of what we might call financial control, that 1917 is to say, control by those who are only interested in making as large dividends or profits as possible without having any practical mining experience whatever. In this case, unfortunately, instead of having the common sense to appoint a first-class manager those persons with financial control appointed a man who was obviously not of strong character and, according to the Commissioner, was a man who was no doubt overridden by those above him. The Commissioner says:I think it is a mistake to work large collieries without some able mining engineer in authority and superior to a manager, known under the Act as 'agent.' The person appointed to such a post needs to be of strong character and able, if necessary, to resist those in control of the commercial side of the concern.Unfortunately that was not the position at Gresford. Apart from the manager, under-manager and overmen, there were 14 or 15 deputies in charge of the various districts of the mine. Section 14 of the Act of 1911 provides that a deputy shall make such inspections and carry out such other duties as to the presence of gas, ventilation, safety of roof and side and general safety as may be necessary. He is required to devote his whole time to the job, except that he may be employed in measuring work done in his district or in firing shots.
What happened at Gresford? I have here a record of one of the deputies, Herbert Thomas, who was deputy in 29's district. As hon. Members know, the law requires that each deputy shall make two inspections every shift. Taking as a typical case 30th May, 1934, I find that it took him from 12.15 to 2 p.m. or 1¾ hours to make his inspection and if he makes two inspections per shift that means that he should spend 3½ hours inspecting his district. In addition to spending 3½ hours inspecting his district, I find that Mr. Thomas, during July and August, 1934—and this applies to other deputies in this pit—was engaged in shot firing and on some days he fired as many as 40, 46, 50, 48, or 44 shots. Hon. Members will recall that the Commissioner stated in his Report that the shot-firer, engaged on nothing else but shot-firing, should not exceed 40 shots during his eight-hour shift. Yet we find that this deputy was engaged in firing from 40 to 50 shots and spending another 3½ hours in carrying out his duties of inspection under the Act.
1918 I formed the impression that the trouble at Gresford was due to the deputies, most of whom seemed to me to be intelligent, practical men, concerning themselves more with production than with safety precautions. I agree with the Commissioner that deputies ought not to be allowed to do any shot-firing. They ought to be concerned solely with safety precautions. I go further and suggest that the Minister should consider the advisability of removing deputies from the control of the management and making them responsible to the mines inspector or some other independent person. May I deal briefly with the conditions in 14's district to which reference has already been made? We have it on the authority of the Report that it was impossible to say how much air was circulated in 14's district and apparently no tests were taken as required by the Act of 1911. On page 39 of the Report the Commissioner says:What quantity per minute actually did pass into 14's district no one knew as it was never measured as it ought to have been.On page 58 he goes on to say:I am satisfied that after the fall on 24th May the ventilation on 14's face was not adequate. The position before that fall occurred was unsatisfactory and could only become worse as the face was taken further to the rise. After that fall the position was so precarious that drastic remedies were needed and should have been taken. Work on 14's face should have been stopped at least until a return aircourse … had been made. But even then the position, owing to the small quantity of heated air available for ventilation, would still not have been satisfactory and would not be until the whole system of ventilating all the districts in the Dennis Section of the mine had been reorganised.I have two comments to make on that statement. First, work was not stopped. Secondly, the ventilation system of that section of the mine was never reorganised. The evidence at the inquiry made it clear beyond dispute that from May gas formed once or twice a week in 14's district. It seems to have been the regular habit to clear it by using the instrument known as a "banjack" from which comes compressed air. There may be persons bolder than I am who would express a definite opinion as to the cause of the explosion. Personally, I believe it is not possible to determine definitively the cause of the explosion at Gresford, having regard to our inability to penetrate into the explosive area. But if 1919 I were to hazard an opinion I should express agreement with the statement of Mr. Joseph Jones that the conditions in 14's district, in effect, made it a veritable gasometer and that it is the place which is more likely than any other section of the mine to have been the scene of the actual explosion.
In any event, the evidence adduced at the inquiry showed, to my mind, a most lamentable state of affairs in this pit. It showed slackness and inefficiency, reflecting the gravest discredit on the management of the colliery. One can only hope that, as a result of the Gresford tragedy, public opinion will be so aroused that the country will take the view that too much cannot be done to ensure the welfare and safety of those men who work in the bowels of the earth. In my view it is no exaggeration to say that the coal-miners of this country are in the front-line trenches of our industrial system. They have a greater rate of mortality in their ranks than those engaged in any other form of industry and I, for one, believe it is the duty of Parliament to do everything that is humanly possible to ensure that the conditions which, beyond a peradventure, existed in the Gresford Colliery prior to this terrible explosion, can never occur again in any other coal mine in this country.
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ Sir Arnold Wilson
I listened to the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell) with interest, with respect and indeed with admiration, because he had a most difficult task and he performed it with restraint and delicacy. I have no miners in my constituency and I have little personal, practical acquaintance with the industry, but I wish to raise two points, one of which has not yet been mentioned, while on the other I disagree with what has been said. The point which has not yet been mentioned is the responsibility of the directors of the company which owns the Gresford Colliery. I have not read the evidence, because it is not in accessible form, but everyone who has any knowledge of company management knows that there is a regular system under which the management of a mine, or any other industry has to report periodically to the board of directors. The directors have to receive and consider at intervals certain reports in a certain form 1920 and upon those reports they have to minute and pass resolutions. I feel that the inquiry fell short of completeness in that it did not, as far as I know, consider the relations between the management of the mine and the directors. The directors have, in law and in common sense, a practical as well as a financial responsibility and I doubt whether any inquiry can be regarded as complete which does not deal fully with that point.
The second point I wish to mention is in regard to the loud praise which I have heard—and with which I disagree—of automatic gas detectors. I am not an expert, but I have read a great deal of technical literature regarding the Ringrose and other detectors, and I am by no means sure that they would bring about a great measure of safety. There have been certain explosions recently in mines in which gas detectors are used. The mere fact that they are automatic does not necessarily bring safety. They may be inefficient, they may be tampered with and, in the case of one, at least, I understand that shortly after it has given the alarm it goes out, and having been extinguished ceases to be a detector. There is a vast amount of technical information on the subject, but I think we should do well to await the decision of the Royal Commission before asking the Minister to make drastic and universal decisions in regard to a device which has been very fully investigated by the Department and by the industry but has not yet been found sufficiently useful to be regarded as suitable for compulsory adoption.
A third point which I wish to make concerns the principle of inspection by sample, to which the Minister referred as the principle adopted by his Department. It requires, in my respectful submission, more consideration before it is regarded as a fixed principle of inspection. When one is dealing with machinery, making surveys of ships or boilers, for example—I admit there is a great difference between the two—the inspection is two-fold. First there is the actual inspection of the object itself, and, secondly, there is a careful survey of the plans and specifications to ensure that the ship or boiler comes up to specification and that those parts which cannot be examined are in accordance with the plan as originally drawn. I feel that mines ought to be inspected on 1921 the basis of an examination by the inspector of the plans and that every alteration ought to be reported to him in order that there may be a theoretical as well as a practical inspection. I feel that every mine ought to be inspected regularly, and not necessarily by sample.
If more inspectors are required let there be more, though I cannot help thinking that if they were better supplied with means of locomotion, and given greater facilities to do their work, it would be less costly and perhaps more effective; for there is not an unlimited supply of first-class men for jobs of that sort. It is my own feeling, too, that they have in some respects suffered in status in the past ten years, due, perhaps, to the fact that their pay is not sufficient and their prospects not good enough. It is not altogether desirable, in principle, to have a body of men who for the whole of their lives are required to devote themselves to the sole duty of inspections of a particular type. They are apt to become weary of their particular job, and not to do the work quite so well as they might if they had an opportunity of a somewhat wider range of inspection. I suggest that the whole question of selection, training, pay and promotion, and the relative status in the Civil Service of mines inspectors compared with other inspectors, should receive more consideration than it has yet had, perhaps by the Royal Commission.
As to who should conduct inquiries, I submit, although I am aware that I am not in agreement with a good many of my colleagues, that the case has not been made out for the appointment of a judge in all or most of these cases. Section 83 of the Act is perfectly clear, and lays it down that the Minister may appoint any competent person to conduct the inquiry. It is open to the Minister to appoint anybody he likes who is competent for the purpose. When the airship R.101 met with an accident the present Home Secretary was appointed to conduct the inquiry, owing to the outstanding importance of the circumstances. If it is a single aeroplane which has crashed, an inspector from the Air Ministry is considered sufficient. I think that every case, as the Minister has said, should be judged on its merits; but let us remember that if we in this House express the opinion that a Ministerial tribunal cannot in certain circumstances be trusted 1922 to do justice we are doing a great disservice to the Civil Service as a whole, and we cast a doubt on a great deal of the legislation which we ourselves pass.
Every Ministry has placed upon it the responsibility of making inspections, and in every case its own staff and the conduct of its own Department may be called in question. Issues of vast importance are habitually placed before Ministerial tribunals to be tried, and the evidence has to be weighed—these great housing schemes, involving the fate of thousands of persons, and every sort of question is now decided by a Ministerial tribunal virtually without appeal. An hon. Member remarks that there is an independent inspector, but the issues are often directly relevant to his Department. The Ministers' Powers Committee dealt at great length with that point, and I think it is a great mistake to assume that a judge is necessary in order to do justice. Thank God, in this country we can do justice, and we do do justice daily, without the assistance of judges, and without the assistance of lawyers.
If we are to have all these cases dealt with by judges it will be necessary to have a greatly increased staff of judges. Not all of His Majesty's judges are competent to deal with highly technical questions such as those involved here, and I would far rather have a man who has spent his life in going down mines to judge the validity, the acceptability and the reliability of evidence than a judge who is not in any way skilled in mining and probably does not know the language of the pit or the language of the witnesses, and may well be advised by counsel on either side who do not know the language of the pit or the language of the witnesses. Let us think twice before we assume that a judge is the right person. In any case, the Miners' Federation have not, in the past 40 years, so far as I know, ever made the suggestion that anybody but the chief inspector of mines should hold these inquiries, and to the best of my knowledge they did not make the suggestion when the Gresford mining disaster occurred. The suggestion has come up later, and can be considered on its merits. We as a House of Commons have had these reports placed before us for the last 40 years, and never yet have we raised any objection to the chief inspector making them.
1923 That brings me to my final point. The law says that the report of the inspector must be laid before the House in full. My submission is that the words "in full" should be interpreted to mean "with all the evidence that has been given before the tribunal" It is impossible for us Members of Parliament, who, unlike the hon. Member for Gower and the hon. Member for Kingswinford (Mr. A. Henderson) have not heard the whole of the evidence, to read it in the Library. It runs to rather more than 3,000 pages, it is unindexed, and is quite impossible to handle; and we are at a great disadvantage, we laymen, in the presence of persons who have not had to read the evidence but have listened to it, which is far better. Many of us would be willing to read it if we could get it in print and with an index. Suppose this were a matter which was to go before the House of Lords. The law would require the whole of the evidence to be printed in order that that High Court, the High Court of Parliament in the House of Lords, might consider it acting as a judicial tribunal. For this purpose we here are a High Court as well, and I submit that when a Royal Commission or a tribunal sits, and the law requires its report to be placed before us, there ought in ordinary circumstances to be copies of the evidence available in print. It seems contrary to all good principles for us to have the evidence quoted at us in sections and not to be able ourselves to get back to the original evidence.
As a student of social subjects, with a certain aptitude for discovering the facts which I require by a careful study of the evidence of Royal Commissions, I know that very few of the really relevant facts in regard to the great social issues of the past 50 years could have been discovered from the Reports of the Royal Commissions themselves. They emerge from the evidence, and if you want to get down to the facts in any case you must have the evidence itself and the cross-examination. I urge the Minister to consider whether he will not in future publish the evidence along with the Report. A former chief inspector, Sir Richard Redmayne, wrote to the "Times" recently to express his own opinion that the evidence itself was often of far more permanent value than the Report in pre- 1924 venting accidents and in teaching other mine inspectors and owners. It carries conviction as nothing else can. Would it not be well for us to make it a principle in future in all mining inquiries to have the evidence printed and circulated, so that it may be purchased by every mine owner in the kingdom, circulated by the Miners' Federation and sent by the Mines Department to the inspectors themselves? There is a great responsibility on this House in all these matters, and we cannot exercise it properly unless we have all the documents, and to fail to print the evidence on grounds of economy is to fail to make use of one of the most powerful weapons of publicity we possess, namely, the Government printing presses and the Stationery Office.
§ 8.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Ridley
I am very reluctant indeed to intrude even for a few minutes into this Debate, for I have never been required by my calling, as so many of my hon. Friends have, to run the risks of a miner's life; but I have been able to play the part of a spectator watching with admiration the courageous way in which other men face those risks. Nor should I have intervened in a Debate which is intimately concerned with so many hon. Friends of mine had it not been for a personal experience of my own. I have come to this House from a great mining constituency, and am proud that a non-manual worker has been given the opportunity of service of that kind within the House. Exactly a week ago to-day a telegram was put into my hands in the Inner Lobby telling me that within my constituency seven men the night before had been hurled to their doom in that South Normanton disaster, in the search for warmth, light and comfort for you and me.
I would not, if I could, distress the House by describing my experiences in that constituency, to which I journeyed the next day, of contact with bereaved wives and mothers, of going to hospital and seeing men who were so badly battered that they could hardly see at all, and of the inner consciousness to me of what a mining disaster means. I had never quite realised before, and I think that the House as a whole cannot realise, the long shadow which is cast by a mining disaster. Its disastrous consequences are not limited to death or physical disablement; they extend themselves even to 1925 mental disablement and distress. I visited, in the course of the day, a man in the middle thirties, a normal, healthy, virile man who had, 48 hours before, been within 50 yards of the disaster. In that 48 hours he had succumbed, a nervous wreck, conscious for the first time in his mining life of what fear in the presence of death really meant. One day that man will walk to the pit-head again to make his journey in the cage with a new fear in his mind for the first time of what that experience will mean to him. That shadow cast itself not only upon a man in the immediate vicinity of the disaster, but I could feel it in the whole of that mining constituency. There was a new nervousness, a new apprehension of what it meant to be in the presence of such an emergency. There is no need at this stage of the Debate to plead for the sympathetic consideration of the whole House in the face of sacrifice of this kind, which is made in order that you and I, outside the mining industry, in our civilian existence, may have warmth and light and comfort.
I suggest that, just as the Gresford explosion came definitely out of the condition of the Gresford pit, so does the condition of the Gresford pit come almost as inevitably out of the economic conditions of the industry. In every sense of the word it would be thoroughly indecent to make political capital out of a situation of that kind, and, whatever the temptation, every hon. Member has resisted it so far. I do not intend to succumb to it, but it would be dishonest not to speak what is in one's mind and to speak the truth as one sees it. I am sorry that the hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) has had to leave the House. He made a contribution on the subject which was listened to with the greatest interest, but with which I must disagree. He entirely misunderstood what we regard as the economic distress of the mining industry. A succession of causes over the last 19 years has produced a cumulative effect that, economically, results in a desperate, terrible and sometimes even angry search for such restricted national and world markets as still remain for that industry.
There is a desperate search for world markets and national markets, in order that the industry may be able to keep itself afloat by dint of desperate measures. 1926 That keeping itself afloat means the maintenance of some sort of profit in the running of the industry, and in order to produce that profit, and keep the ship afloat in that fashion, desperate remedies and measures have to be applied. Price cutting of the most terrible character has meant wage-cutting of an even more terrible character. When wage-cutting reaches what may be called rock-bottom, other forms of economy just as relentless have been pursued and employed. On the point of that desperate necessity everybody becomes its slavish servant. The manager of the mine is compelled to do things because of desperate economic necessity which normally he would not only refrain from doing but would refuse to do.
I noticed a most unfortunate smile cross the face of the Secretary for Mines when an hon. Member on these benches was talking of the economic insecurity of the miners. It may be that anybody who does not represent a mining constituency does not understand what that means. It is easy for me to understand it, representing such a constituency, and to understand the position of the man who feels more than anything else, not the loss of his job, but the loss of those four walls within which is contained his home. It is easy for me to understand how, with economic insecurity surrounding him, a man cannot do the things within the provisions of the law that otherwise it would be an easy and incumbent thing for him to do. That desperate economic necessity drives everybody, and results in the almost complete abandonment, or at least a serious weakening, of the precautionary measures that could reduce to a point below which it cannot be reduced the insecurity of life below ground only if they were completely applied.
I shall not discuss the South Normanton disaster for fear I prejudice whatever inquiry may be made. I rose only to suggest to hon. Members on the other side of the House who have been kind enough to listen to this Debate that they will need not only the considerable sympathy which has already been expressed in respect of this grave disaster and others, but will need to have more courage and a public-spirited approach to this matter. They should see that the terms of the Motion now before us, which call for effective measures for ensuring that the industry is carried on under conditions 1927 of maximum safety, cannot be applied within an industry so organised that its immediate purpose is to use the most desperate methods possible to ensure a profit within the industry, even though that employment of desperate measures means, if not the abandonment, at least the very serious weakening of the precautionary measures that can alone ensure a minimum of safety. The analogy of the railway industry was falsely employed by the hon. Member for North Leeds, and who was quite unconscious of the fact that the economic interests of that industry, desperate as they are, do not compare with those of the mining industry.
Until the desperate necessity of making a profit out of the industry is lifted, no matter what precautionary methods are employed, we shall in this House not be able to discharge our social obligations under the existing situation. Two men, from the beginning of this Debate to the end of it, will have lost their lives in the search for the light, warmth and comfort which we need. I doubt whether we shall completely discharge the social obligations which are incumbent upon us until we have taken over the industry as a whole, and organised it, not on the basis of desperate necessity but as a social organisation applying itself to social purposes.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Cape
I am rather sorry that the hon. Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson) is not in his place, because he put one or two very pertinent points. Unfortunately I have had to take part in a good many inquiries, not as gigantic as the Gresford inquiry, but of a similar character, and I can never remember any inquiry at which directors were put in the witness box to answer questions. Whether it is permissible or not I cannot say, but I cannot remember any case in which the Commissioner—and I have been at inquiries under three Commissioners—thought it incumbent upon him to put the employers in the witness box. With regard to the inspectors, the hon. Member for Hitchin said that these men would get weary and tired of the continual strain of inspections with no variation, seeming to imply that, once a man enters the inspectorate, he remains where he started, as a junior inspector. As a matter of fact, when a man enters the inspectorate as a 1928 junior inspector he has the same chances that every man in the Civil Service has of rising to the top. He becomes a district or senior inspector, then a divisional inspector, and perhaps in course of time he may become chief inspector. As regards the question of variation, he is removed from one district to another, and there are very few inspectors who have reached the position of divisional inspector who have not been in two or three districts in the coal mining areas of England, Scotland and Wales. I am not going to enter into the question of their salaries at the moment, but am going to deal with some of the points that were raised by the Secretary for Mines.
In the first place, I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell), who opened the Debate, and to say that we who have been miners thoroughly understood and realised what he meant by his vivid description of the miner's life. The Secretary for Mines, referring to the cross-examination of a witness by the hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps), stated that the fact that a man was a bad witness did not prove that he was not capable of his job. I do not know what sort of witness the Secretary for Mines would make if he went into the witness-box, but I can say that he would make a good advocate for inspectors of mines. Speaking from personal experience, I have no complaint to make against any individual inspector of mines; all those who have been in my district, whenever I have called upon them to examine a pit or a part of a pit, have responded at the earliest possible moment. But, taking the whole thing generally—and that is what we are reviewing to-night—I am not satisfied with the manner in which the inspections are carried on. If there are not sufficient inspectors, more ought to be appointed, because to my mind the inspector of mines is a responsible person, and I have always looked upon him as one of the strong links in the mining community between the owner arid the worker. Reading the evidence given at the inquiry, one finds a rather alarming state of affairs. Mr. Jones, in his report, says with regard to inspections:The evidence revealed that the visits paid by His Majesty's Inspectors to this colliery have been both insufficient and ineffective1929 He goes on to point out that of 13 visits made by Mr. Dominy all were made at times when there had been accidents, and no reports as to the condition of the mine were made on those occasions. I suggest to the Minister of Mines that, when an inspector makes an inspection after an accident, that should be regarded as a special occasion. When he goes to inspect a mine or part of a mine, he goes with the specific object of looking particularly for danger, and there is far too little inspection in our mines to-day. Moreover, most of the inspections made in mines are made by the junior inspectors. That cannot be denied, and in fact we know that it is true. It may be that, when inspectors are promoted from juniors to seniors, the higher the promotion the less work the inspector has to do, but I want to suggest to the Secretary for Mines that, the higher the office that a man reaches, the more important it is that he should visit the mines in his area. I do not, of course, mean that that should apply to the Chief Inspector of Mines, because it would be a practical impossibility, but I think there is room for vast improvements in regard to inspection.
The inspectors of mines are not incompetent men; they are all competent men and thoroughly understand their job. At least, that has been my experience. I hope that, as a result of the new instructions which the Secretary for Mines has sent out to inspectors, they will understand clearly that not only the Mines Department but this House expects from them more inspection than there has previously been in the mines of this country. The Secretary for Mines made, as I have said, a good defence of the inspectors, and told us point blank that he could not see anything wrong that they had done, but immediately afterwards he told us that as many changes as possible were being made, short of changing the Coal Mines Act itself, which could only be done by new legislation. If, however, the inspections had been done as they should have been done, what would be the need for sending special instructions to the inspectors? The fact is that the hon. and gallant Gentleman knows perfectly well that the inspection is far from perfect, and I believe he has done something to make it more perfect than it was.
With regard to the question of the judicial capacity of the Commissioner or 1930 the chairman of an inquiry, I have as much respect and esteem for the President of the Mineworkers' Federation as any man in this House, but that does not mean that, simply because he says that something ought to be done, I agree with it. I am not going to say that until I have considered it from every possible angle. Then, if I think it is a good thing, I will back it up and, if not, I will not. In regard to the Chief Inspector of Mines, I think my colleagues have made it quite clear that no one doubts his competence to deal with problems of that kind. I have probably had more experience of him than anyone in the House. I have been down pits with him where there have been explosions when he was deputy chief inspector and since he became Chief Inspector. He is not only a good technician and a man of wide knowledge of mining in all its phases, but he is a good practical man as well. I have sat with him at inquiries and heard his judgments, and every mining Member is quite satisfied that Sir Henry Walker is competent to conduct them. But there may be circumstances which would make it necessary that a legal man should preside at inquiries of that kind. There is one thing that I disagree with in this Report:One of these workmen said, Robert Jones (night shift deputy) would only ram one hole at a time. We have tried him to ram more but he wouldn't'Sir Henry goes on to point out that many workmen connived at some things that the deputies and shot-firers did which were against the regulations and the method of procedure. I do not think it is right to attempt to ride off on that, because the deputy is a higher official than a workman. He is like a sergeant in the Army, and the private has to obey him. If a deputy is so weak as to allow the men to tell him what he is to do, and he himself believes it is dangerous, the sooner that man is out of the pit the better for everyone. If a man says, "I want two shots," the deputy has the sole right to say, "No, that will not be done," and the man cannot compel him to do it.
In 99 cases out of 100 the mines manager will believe an official before he believes a man. I once had a case which I thought was impregnable, and the official against whom the charge was made was unable to put up a defence which would convince anyone. The manager said, "This is my official. I 1931 appointed him to give me information. I have every reason to trust him, and I cannot take the word of this man against his." I do not want to put anyone in the dock, but I cannot refrain from saying that to my mind the management of this colliery from top to bottom has been haphazard, and it seems to me that there has been no co-ordination of any kind. Whatever safety appliances are put into operation, there is still the human factor. Every official in the colliery must have confidence in the others and there must be an exchange of views and frank and free discussion before you can get security for the men. The late manager at this colliery, one would think, would be competent. He was not a new man. He had been for three years assistant manager and under-manager, and he seems to have been a man who should have real knowledge of the colliery throughout. The officials were all practical men. The one weak point to my mind was that Mr. Bonsall was not strong enough to assert himself as manager and allowed officials below him to do as they liked. No exchange of views took place, and the result was the disaster that we are discussing. We have entered into this Debate in the same spirit as that in which the Minister finished his speech. We want to do everything we can to help his Department and all his officials to do all that humanly can be done to safeguard the lives and limbs of our men better in the future than has been the case in the past.
§ 8.53 p.m.
§ Sir Frederick Mills
I intervene in the Debate because this is one of the subjects that I had in mind when I first came into Parliament. My first and most important object was to try to get tariffs for the steel trade and next came the question of safety in coal mines. I, for one, do not resent this discussion, as was rather hinted by one speaker above the Gangway. However unfortunate the occasion may be, this discussion must do a very great deal of good. I am afraid hon. Members above the Gangway are inclined to rely too much upon inspection. I well recall the catastrophe 10 years ago, and the hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) brought it vividly back to my mind when he said that a colliery owner was alarmed when he saw a pit explosion announced on the newspaper 1932 placards, because that is how I learnt of the one at Ebbw Vale. I left my flat to go to South Wales when I saw from a newspaper placard that there had been a pit explosion. That was the first intimation I had of the disaster when 51 lives were lost. The reason why I was not advised, though I was the chairman of the company, was that the managing director and the chief managers of the mine were lying gassed below ground or had been rescued.
That brings me to the next point, and I am rather disposed to resent the expressions that have been used by hon. Members above the Gangway that output and not safety are the first considerations. At Ebbw Vale we had the advantage of a managing director whose name was one with which to conjure in South Wales. He was well known to all the South Wales Members of Parliament, and had the highest technical knowledge. There was a great number of colliery managers also with very high technical knowledge, and I am rather disposed to agree with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Workington (Mr. Cape), that unless you get everybody in the pit working towards the same end, you will not get very much from inspection at intervals. However, it was the explosion in our own colliery, one of the finest collieries in existence, supposed to be well designed, well planned and well managed—and it was not only unaccountable at the time, but I do not think that the cause was ever really discovered—which set me thinking. I have not been a collier, but I happen to be an engineer and have had 50 years close association with collieries, and I went to America to see what things were like there.
I made a speech in this House on 3rd May, 1932, which occupied several columns of the OFFICIAL REPORT, and if any one is interested, I invite him to look at it. That speech has one singular characteristic. Nobodv has taken the slightest notice of it. The hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) says, "Hear, hear" I wonder if he is right. I described what I saw for myself in America. They have a system working at several collieries, and they are raising 30,000,000 tons of coal a year under that system. The whole system is different from what usually obtains in this country. The rotation is quite different. The drilling and cutting are done on one shift, and 1933 the fire boss, as they call him, comes in, and he and his mate are the only people in the mine when the shot-firing takes place, and for two hours after that there is nobody in the mine at all, while the ventilation, which is twice as much as that of any mine in this country, takes out the products of combustion and makes the mine safe. Then the filling shift comes along. Curiously enough, nobody is paid on tonnage, and nobody at that time was getting less than five dollars a day, and, still more curiously, none of the coal comes up the shafts. It is loaded on to a belt and comes up an inclined plane.
The point I want to make is this: I may be wrong, I may be, as I said in that speech five years ago, a fanatic or a madman, but I should like somebody to examine that speech, and, better still, I should like to hear of some experts going out to America and looking at the mines for themselves. I venture to say to the House of Commons, "You cannot afford to throw out this story of mine." I am either right or I am wrong. When I came back from America I called all the pit managers together, including the chief colliery manager—and I would remind the House that at that time our output capacity was over 5,000,000 tons a year—and I explained the whole thing to them, and they did not pooh-pooh it. I asked His Majesty's Inspector of Mines to come over, and he thought that there was something in it. I spoke to Sir Henry Walker several times, and the last time I saw him, he said that some people in certain parts of this country had adopted the principles that I had set out. I want to ask the Secretary for Mines to-night whether he will be so kind as to get somebody to read my description, which I gave to the House five years ago, and get some competent people to examine it and tell the House that I am all wrong, or, on the other hand, that there is something to investigate.
§ 9.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Jenkins
The hon. Gentleman the Member for East Leyton (Sir F. Mills) referred to an explosion that took place in Monmouthshire, and on that occasion I had the misfortune to be one of the first to go down that mine and see the conditions obtaining there. I do not want to describe the conditions that existed in that mine. The hon. Member has referred to the good condition of the mine, and 1934 I am not going to discuss that matter. That fact that he has discovered in the American mines what he considers to be a cure for our explosions, and the speech to which he has referred, will, I am sure, be so attractive as to cause a number of hon. Members to read the speech tomorrow. I think that conditions may be somewhat different in the American mines from what they are in this country. It may be more difficult under our mining conditions to avoid explosions than it is under the conditions obtaining in America. However, I believe that we have sufficient knowledge at the present time to be able to prevent disasters similar to those which have taken place.
The point we are discussing to-night relates to Gresford, the pit at which occurred one of the biggest disasters that have ever taken place in this country. I confess that when I read the Report of Sir Henry Walker and the two assessors—the Report is in three parts—I believed that he must have felt thoroughly ashamed of the conditions that were existing in the Gresford Colliery. I do not think that there can be any doubt about that. Sir Henry undoubtedly did his best to say as few unkind things about the inspectorate as he could, and what he did say was in very mild language; but if you read the Report of Sir Henry Walker carefully and the Report of one of the assessors, Mr. Jones—Mr. Jones uses much stronger language—you will find in the Report of Sir Henry Walker a very substantial amount of support for the Report of Mr. Jones. I am unable to see a great deal of difference between the reports. I had intended to quote substantially from the Report, but that has been done by a number of previous speakers, and as I believe there are other hon. Members who desire to speak, I do not intend to detain the House very long. But I hope that I shall be excused if I quote from the Report of Sir Henry Walker the passage in which he saysI have an uneasy feeling that Mr. Bonsall was overridden. I ask myself why was the driving of 37's place stopped and the men sent to produce coal? Why was 105's drift not being worked continuously on all three shifts? Why was the scouring in 14's stopped instead of being pushed on continuously Why were men taken out of 14's return airway to work on the coal when there were absentees in the face? And, above all, why were not 29's, 14's and 95's districts stopped until the necessary alterations had been made in order to provide adequate ventilation?1935 He adds—And my uneasy feeling remains.I think nothing could be more critical of our system of inspection in the mines than that observation. In another part of the Report Sir Henry refers to the bad system of working, the bad plan of working. During the time that that mine has been developing according to that plan, there must have been numerous inspections by the Mines Department. Why was it not discovered? If Sir Henry had an uneasy feeling about Mr. Bonsall being overridden, I am sure that those of us who are connected with the mines have a very uneasy feeling that there may be other mines in this country in a similar condition to that of Gresford. What guarantee do we get from the mining inspectorate that there are no such mines? Let me say at once that my relationship with the inspectors has been a particularly good one. An hon. Member for one of the Cumberland Divisions made reference to this subject. I have never asked help from the inspectors without getting it most readily. That does give one some satisfaction, but it is Gresford with which we are concerned.
While I have listened to the Debate there has been recalled to my mind an experience that I had in connection with an explosion in a district in which I happened to be the miners' agent. Eleven men lost their lives. It was a small explosion, as things go, but it was tragic enough. I remember that, during the inquiry, which was conducted not by the Chief Inspector but by one of the inspectors—I have no complaint to make against him—in the course of evidence it came out that one of the junior inspectors had suggested to the colliery company manager, two years before, that the system of ventilation was bad. No action was taken. The same system was persisted in, and as far as I know the junior inspector made no report to his superiors. I, as miners' agent for the district, knew nothing about it, and the result was that the colliery drifted on to the point of the explosion. That system of inspection is all wrong.
I doubt whether the mines inspectors have quite as much responsibility as they should have. How frequently does one see an inspector go into a pit, make an examination apparently satisfactory in 1936 every way and have come conversation with the people in control of the mine. He may make some suggestion for a change in the system of working, pointing out that an increase of ventilation is necessary and that the safest methods are not being adopted. The mine workers never hear any of that conversation. Would it not be wiser if the mines inspectors were made a degree more responsible and if they had to prepare a report of their examination and post it at the pit top, in the same way that the workers examiners have to post their reports, and the deputies have to post their reports? That would be a much better way of carrying on our system of examination by mines inspectors than the one we have at the present time.
It is perfectly obvious that the inspectors are not sufficient in number to carry out the work. It is a rare occurrence to see a mines inspector making a complete examination of a colliery. It may be that the whole of the roadways and the face workings of a colliery is anything from 30 to 40 miles in extent. The mines inspector may walk four miles of that area and leave the rest of the area untouched. It is fundamental to an effective system of examination that there should be divisions for the inspector of mines which are not too big for them to supervise effectually, and so that the inspector may know them well. I think the Chief Inspector refers to that to some extent in his report. If that were done, and if we had a greater measure of responsibility imposed upon the inspectors of mines, we should have better results.
Is there anyone in this House—I do not think there can be anyone in the Mines Department—who will accept the view that there is no interference with colliery managers by the colliery company? There can be no doubt that managers are to a very large extent overridden these days. Let it be remembered that there must be a higher percentage of unemployment among colliery managers than among colliery workmen. We have probably closed somewhere in the region of 1,400 mines during the period of depression. Colliery managers have been looking for work and many have been working under conditions that are extremely difficult, having pressure brought to bear upon them by their directors to reduce the costs of production.
1937 I might here relate a personal experience. On one occasion I was a deputy for a short period, and it was part of my duty to receive the cost sheets of my own district and the neighbouring districts, and if the cost was 2s. 8d. here and 2S.9d.there, I was asked: "Why is it 2s. 9d. in one case? Cannot you get yours down to 2s. 8d.?" I suppose that this is practised to a considerable extent at the present time. I know one man, in charge of a number of collieries, who has no knowledge at all of colliery work, yet he compares pit with pit and costs with costs and has no regard for the differences that exist in different pits. You cannot get exactly similar conditions in two different collieries. There are many people who do exercise a very considerable amount of domination over our colliery managers.
I was very much disappointed with the speech of the Secretary for Mines. While I feel that there can be no one inside the House who desires to persecute anybody, the people who have been guilty of bringing about the state of things at Gresford will have to be dealt with in another place, and it is not for us to judge them. I fear that the conditions that have obtained for so long in our collieries have created a number of collieries that may be bordering on the condition of Gresford. The hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) made a very interesting speech on the coal question, as he always does on any subject connected with coal mines. The early part of his speech was wholly admirable, but later he dealt with another matter altogether, as to whether it should be public or private control. He took a most unfortunate period, the period of the War. It was unfortunate for his own case, for it is obvious to everybody who has any knowledge of that period in the mines that there was almost total irresponsibility on the part of the people who controlled the mines. Money was spent unnecessarily, higher costs were involved and in many cases good mines were badly damaged during that period. Not only that, but the best type of mining labour was taken out and sent to the War and a large amount of labour unsuited and unacquainted with mining was brought in. I hope that matter will not be pursued any further.
The point which concerns us is whether we can by tightening up the system of 1938 inspection prevent such cases as Gresford happening again. That is the important thing. I think the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. G. Griffiths) was anxious to place too much reliance on the automatic detectors. They may be used, but something more will have to be done. Collieries must be properly ventilated. We have sufficient scientific knowledge to know what causes explosions. It is true that you cannot go down and locate the exact spot where an explosion happens, but we know that gas is required and that coal dust is required, and that if you take away these two elements you do not get explosions. In Gresford colliery the roads were covered with much dust. These matters should be given much more consideration than they have in the past. Gas can be removed from a mine with proper care, and dust can be removed with proper care, but there is a tendency to neglect these duties on the part of the people who are in authority.
The question was raised as to whether or not the Secretary for Mines would have made a good witness in the dock. I remember on one occasion having some trouble at a colliery when the Chief Inspector of Mines happened to be there and rendered the men very excellent service. It was necessary to go further, and the Chief Inspector of Mines was called as a witness. He was not as good a witness for us as he was at the colliery where the dispute originated. Maybe he was right. The vital need is to create an inspectorate which will ensure proper supervision of the mines. Let us see the reports which the inspectors prepare, and let the workmen see them also. It would be a great help to them and would add to the responsibilities of the inspectors when they went into a pit. I want to say how greatly every hon. Member in the House must have admired the wholly admirable statement made by the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell) on this question. I have never sat in the House and listened to a statement made on such a difficult question with such restraint yet still with such force as the speech of my hon. Friend.
§ 9.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Brown
Most hon. Members will recognise that many classes of industrial workers have to undergo serious risks in carrying out their various occupations, and that our comfort and 1939 well-being depend very largely on the risks to which many industrial workers are exposed. But we shall all agree that no class of industrial workers ought to be exposed to unnecessary risks. The whole purpose of this discussion is, if possible, to obviate unnecessary risks to which some of us think the miners of the country are too frequently exposed. I gather that there are differences of opinion as to the immediate cause of the disaster we are discussing, but there is a consensus of opinion in regard to certain factors which we may take as predisposing causes of the disaster. Let me briefly summarise them under three heads. It seems to me that the three predisposing causes are, first, negligent colliery management; secondly, inadequate regulations; and, thirdly, a complacent inspectorate. I emphasise the word "complacent," especially after listening to the speech of the Secretary for Mines. I was profoundly disappointed with the tone and temper of that speech, especially when he talked about the mining inspectors. There may be another cause and I may be criticised for mentioning it, but you may have a few careless workmen responsible for some of the things which happen, and which we all deplore.
I want to say a word about negligent colliery management. At any rate, we know from this Report that there was one negligent colliery management in the country. No one can deny the fact that the colliery management in this case was woefully negligent, I would almost say criminally negligent. We suspect, and I think with justice, that there are other colliery managements who are equally negligent. I think we are justified in making that statement. We are not silly enough or fools enough to believe that any mines are, run for philanthropic reasons. They are not. We know that they are run for profits and dividends, and, consequently, it is not difficult to understand that a colliery management in certain circumstances may not be enthusiastic about enforcing mining regulations. They may be an obstacle to the making of quick profits and large dividends, consequently they have no enthusiasm for regulations. Indeed, the character of the industry and the way in which it must be carried on make it very likely that in many cases it is easier 1940 than it would be in other industries to evade the necessary regulations.
When we take into consideration all the facts involved, we have every reason to believe that not only in this case but in many others colliery managements are negligent, and therefore they must have some responsibility for what happens in a disaster such as we are discussing. I am glad to hear that the Secretary for Mines has issued or is about to issue instructions, and is examining the question whether new regulations can be made. It is obvious that present regulations do not meet the situation. We have been informed by the hon. Member who speaks as a coalowner of the revolution that has been brought about by the introduction of machine mining. He told us that a much greater quantity of gas must necessarily be liberated in machine mining than under the old methods. That being so, special precautions should be taken to meet the new situation. I live in a part of the coalfield where, during my lifetime, explosions have been scarcely known, but within a relatively recent period there have been four—Bilsthorpe, Grasmore, Markham and ten days ago South Normanton, a colliery where until a few years ago it was considered safe for men to work with naked lights. Yet in that colliery, now that machine mining has been introduced, we have had a serious explosion.
These facts seem to point to the conclusion that the new methods of mining have rendered obsolete some of the regulations to which importance used to be attached, and have created conditions which demand re-examination, and, if necessary, new legislation to meet them. With regard to complacent inspectors, I will try to substantiate the statement I have made. On page 89 of the Report I was glad to see the passage which deals with a matter referred to by the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell) in his admirable speech opening the Debate. The chief inspector said:I hope that I am not exceeding my function in saying now what I have held for many years that miners should be members of some effective trades union. That opinion is based on the grounds of safety, with which alone I am concerned, for I believe a well organised trades union, wisely directed, can be as potent an influence for promoting greater safety in mines as it is already in matters, for example, of wages and conditions of employment1941 When I read that passage I paused, and I felt pleased that in such an important document I should have found on record that statement. If what the Inspector says is true, the fact which I am now going to mention may well have some bearing on what has happened in the coalfield from which I come. During the last 10 years we have had no effective trade union in that area. The Noble Lord smiles. I know he happens to be a supporter of what I call an ineffective trade union.
Marquess of Titchfield
I take no part whatever in the fighting between the two trade unions in Nottinghamshire. I have been sought to be dragged in by both sides, but I have had nothing to do with them.
§ Mr. C. Brown
I am pleased to hear that there is some subject in controversial politics in which the Noble Lord does not take part.
Marquess of Titchfield
It is not politics. If it was a matter of politics I should take part in it. To my mind the fighting between the two trade unions is not political, and therefore I do not take part.
§ Mr. C. Brown
I am glad to have the Noble Lord's explanation, and undoubtedly it will be noted in the colliery areas in his constituency. The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. G. Macdonald) made reference to the fact that there were colliery deputies who had been dismissed because they had reported gas, or because they had made some other report which the management did not like. It may be said that hon. Members do not attach much importance to general statements of that kind, but would much rather have instances of definite cases. I have in my possession the case of the dismissal of a deputy in November, 1931, and that deputy is, unfortunately, still unemployed because of the action he took then. He was dismissed because he would not consent to examine a number of districts in a colliery as he did not think that under the mining regulations he was being given the necessary time to do it. He sued the colliery company in the county court for his wages. I have a report of the proceedings in the county court, and the result was that he made so good a case on the ground of unjust dismissal that the judge awarded him the wages which he claimed.
1942 The matter did not end there. At various stages in the intervening years he has taken up the case with the Mines Department, and, as a matter of fact, with the Chief Inspector himself. I have not had time to go through all the correspondence, but in the early stages there was a tendency to offer him a job, or to take steps to find him one, if he would keep his mouth shut, but he did not—he took the case into the court, the consequence being that there was a disinclination to find him a job. The correspondence has gone on through the intervening years, and the man is still unemployed. I mention the case only because it is indicative of what happens to men if they are too persistent in enforcing mining regulations in some collieries. There is no doubt that men are frequently victimised because they seek to enforce the regulations from time to time. I am certain that most of my hon. Friends on these benches are of the same opinion as I am. If they have conversed, as most of them have, with men working in the pits, they will be convinced that the mining inspectorate at present, while it may be technically efficient—I do not deny that—is too complacent and too tolerant with regard to colliery managements which many of us feel to be grossly negligent.
§ 9.37 p.m.
§ Mr. R. J. Taylor
I wish to intervene in the Debate for a few minutes on account of the great importance which it has on the future of miners. I feel that most of the points that are pertinent to the Report have been made, but there are still one or two more to which I would have liked to refer if there had been more time. After reading the Report and the evidence which I have had an opportunity of seeing in the Library, I have come to the conclusion that, although this was a most serious and terrible catastrophe, the circumstances are common to most miners. What was the position? It was a race between an explosion and the district finishing. If the district had finished, all would have been well, and the men would have gone to a new district, but the explosion came first. Those of us who are miners know the condition of the district that is finishing, and the neglect that there is to do the necessary repair work that will save men from accidents and disasters. Let the House remember that, 1943 while over 200 men were killed in this disaster, we are having one man or two men killed every day in the year for very largely the same reasons.
There is one important thing in the Report to which I would like to draw attention, and it is on pages 90 and 91, where "inspection by sample" is mentioned. I think Mr. Charlton was justified in mentioning that it was not physically possible for the Government inspector at present to discharge one-tenth of the duties which, in the inquiry, were held to be his job. Whose fault is it? I have not the time now to lay the fault at anyone's door, but the question which we have a right to ask is whether, as a result of this, the position will be remedied. Here we had a district in a dangerous condition, a district in the pit which it was clearly demonstrated was not even visited by the management, a district in which a return airway would have prevented such a dangerous situation, but that district was not being attended to or examined. What a pity the inspectors did not take that as one of the samples. In the new machine mining, with the pressure at which the pits are being worked and the men are being driven, we are becoming more and more dependent upon the inspectors.
It is of no use anybody in the House trying to believe, in a kindly and philanthropic way, that there is no victimisation in the pits. I know of men who have been walking in the streets since 1926. Let me tell hon. Members—and I wish the hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) was in his place to hear me—that there are a thousand different ways of getting rid of a man. All those ways are being used in the various coalfields. The men are not dismissed for the thing that they are supposed to have done, but the employers simply wait for an opportunity—wait until the man has exceeded the distance between his timber by six inches, or something of that sort. Such things can very easily be found. There is one very peculiar thing in mining, and it is that you can always have good timber and pretty well everything you want when the mine is working all right, when the output is all right, when conditions on the commercial side are satisfactory; but when things are going badly, it is a different matter. Let it be remembered that we have been 1944 going through a very bad time in the mining industry, and in South Wales—it is possible that Gresford came within that category—we have been fighting for trade and low costs.
One hon. Member said that the managers should be strong-minded men. The managers in the mines are as strong-minded as anybody here when they get their jobs; it is when they come up against difficulties from the commercial side, who have been selling coal too cheap after the manager has got it for them, that they become weak-minded. The commercial side say to the manager, "We are not making profits; we have to bring the costs down." It is then that the manager becomes weak-minded, and there is no one here who would not be weak-minded in the same circumstances. Therefore, I have not been astonished when managers have come to me and said, "When the Commission on Safety in Mines reports, if any legislation comes before the House, will you promise that you will fight to put managers under the State and make them independent of the companies?" I have not been astonished, because the managers have a dog's life when things are not going well. We want more inspectors, so that if there are to be sample inspections, we shall have more samples. There should also be some measure of protection for the managers. To conclude my remarks, time and again we have reported to the inspectors on various matters in our coalfields. We have reported through the coal-miners' leaders, men of respect and integrity. These men have taken matters up with the inspectors of mines, and the inspectors have gone to carry out their inspections. In order that we may have full and implicit confidence in the inspectors, why cannot we have reports of the visits after they have been made?
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Sir Stafford Cripps
I am frankly, rather disappointed at the extremely small attendance that there has been on the benches opposite daring the course of this Debate, both on the back benches and on the Front Treasury Bench, because I should have thought that a tragedy of this magnitude was a matter for the whole House of Commons and not merely for those Members who sit for mining constituencies, and I certainly 1945 hoped that the whole House would interest itself in the circumstances that arise for their consideration out of this extremely important Report. I hope that the House will not deal with this Report as a decent and effective burial both for the 265 men and boys who lie breathless and also for our own responsibilities for those men and boys. I was very glad that the task of opening this Debate fell to the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell), because I should like to take this opportunity of saying—and I say it without any fear of contradiction—that he is more responsible for the effectiveness of this inquiry than any other man in England. It was due to his very large and extensive technical knowledge, acting behind the representatives for the North Wales miners in the course of the inquiry, that the facts as regards the tragic neglect at Gresford were able to be brought out and made public.
I think this Debate has been very useful and very instructive, especially for those Members who, like myself, have no direct acquaintance with the operations underground in a coal mine, operations which affect so intimately the lives and safety of hundreds of thousands of people in this country and which are the cause of daily anxiety to millions of women and children and dependants of those who daily go down the mines. It is tragic that it should require a disaster of this magnitude to shake people from their apathy upon this question of safety in mines and to make them realise the urgency of taking some effective measures in order to provide better protection for these men, who deserve so well of the community for the work that they carry out in dangerous circumstances. I think that the magnitude of the relief fund that was raised for the dependants of the miners at Gresford showed the very large measure of sympathy which exists in this country for those who are working under these trying conditions, but we want that sympathy shown in action taken to prevent a recurrence of such a tragedy rather than in providing a livelihood for the dependants of those who have been killed.
The fundamental difficulty, I think, is indicated quite clearly over and over again in the reading of this Report, especially if one is prepared to read between the lines of the Report. The drive for output and profits in a highly competitive industry, especially in times of industrial depression such as existed 1946 at the time of the Gresford disaster, leads to a wholesale neglect of the regulations and the law with respect to safety in mines. The hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) tried to prove that the profit motive in industry had really no effect upon the problem of safety, and he did it by the old and familiar method of setting up his own ninepins of argument and then knocking them down with his own counter-arguments, but I am afraid that he was not very successful in his endeavour.
The accusation against profit-making in industry is not that every employer is bad and inhuman, and indeed the hon. Member in his own personality would prove the untruth of such an assertion, but every mining employer must have profits made for him somehow or another out of the enterprise of mining if that enterprise is to continue within a profit-making society. The difficulty in making those profits varies very much at times and at different places in this country, but always the main drive in mining is for production at a low cost, and in that drive there is always the liability for a disregard of safety measures to arise in particular instances and always, of course, with the belief that that disregard will not result in any tragic accident, but that the management will be able to get through successfully, as the last hon. Member said, the finishing-up of some particular district where they do not think it worth while to put through new ventilation because it would be for so short a time and would be so expensive. That is precisely what happened in the case of the Gresford colliery, and I am perfectly certain that the management at Gresford honestly thought that they would get through with the job without an explosion. They took that risk, and that risk had the tragic results which we know.
Indeed, the case of Gresford proves to the hilt the facts that we assert. It proves that they neglected precautions which are detailed in the Report, taking men off working in the scourings in the 14's on to the face when it was urgently necessary for safety to complete the scourings, taking men off the 24's in order to put them on the face when it was urgently necessary to complete a new heading to get ventilation through to that district, and a number of other instances given by the chief inspector. Is it to be 1947 imagined that these people were such inhuman monsters that they did that just for the sake of doing it, without any motive behind them to drive them and to force them to that most undesirable end? The only conceivable purpose can have been to save money and in order to try to keep down the cost of production; and really the hon. Gentleman gave away his entire case when he stated that it was urgently necessary to increase the efficiency of the inspectorate and to have more investigations of conditions by the trade unions. With that necessity, I entirely agree, but why is it necessary? If the drive for profits does not increase the dangers to safety, why are these precautions necessary? Why is there need for the State to interfere in attaining this desirable state of affairs if there is nothing to prevent the mine owners and the managers from achieving it without? Why must the managers be forced, and why, if they are so anxious to assist safety, should there be all this elaborate structure of regulations and laws built up by the State in order to try, somehow or other, to ensure the men from exploitation in the mining industry? Indeed, it is not only in the mining industry. Why has the State had to legislate as regards the conditions of labour of men, women and children continuously for the last 100 years? The hon. Gentleman's argument is really completely disproved by the facts of the legislation of this country during the last century. It is not from wanton inhumanity that the workers have had to be protected by legislation; it is from the necessities of the drive for production coming from the profit-making system itself.
Nobody can read this Report of the Chief Inspector of Mines on the explosion at Gresford without coming to the conclusion that, for all practical purposes, there was to the knowledge of the management, to the knowledge of the owners and with the active co-operation of the deputies, a complete disregard of the law of the safety of mines in that pit. There has now been a most exhaustive inquiry as regards the conditions that prevailed in that pit before the explosion, and, although I do not agree with all that is said by the Chief Inspector, I should like to take this opportunity of complimenting him on the fullness of his Report and the length to which he has found himself able 1948 to go in the detailed and very strong criticism of the state of affairs that existed. I suppose that the reading of this Report must rouse everyone to a certain feeling of anger against those who are primarily responsible and to a determination, which I hope the Minister for Mines will carry through, to see that those responsible are punished in order that an example may be made to show that this laxity in the observation of regulations and law cannot, and will not, be allowed to persist in this country. There are certain lessons to be learned which, I hope, the House will take into account and act upon, as indeed, it must if it is to be faithful to the duty that it has to protect this large section of the community from dangers which we ourselves impose upon it in order that we may derive the vast wealth that we do from the coal mines.
I want to make it clear that, in my view, there can be no ultimate solution of the difficulties attendant upon this problem of safety in mines until the miners are made wholly responsible for their own safety by having the control of the mining operations. In other words, the conflict between profits and high production on the one hand, and safety and decent working and wage conditions on the other, will never be solved until the whole industry is taken out of the hands of private ownership. In the meantime—because we know that that is something which cannot be immediately accomplished—this Report discloses a number of matters which are capable of immediate remedy if only this House will have the strength to insist upon those remedies being applied. These matters fall under two main heads. There is, first, the proper enforcement of the existing law and regulations, and the second is the tightening up of those regulations in the light of the experience of machine-mining, which has enormously altered the conditions in the mines, and altered them in the direction of a great increase of danger to those who are working those operations.
Undoubtedly, the rapidity of working, as has been stressed by so many hon. Members to-night, and the concentrated drive for production which results from machine-mining, have greatly increased the dangers in the pits of this country, and especially in the dry and gassy pits such as Gresford. To my mind, the most 1949 serious aspect of this Report is the continued and wholesale disregard of the regulations and the law which undoubtedly created that condition of danger in certain parts of this pit which made it ripe at any moment, as the result of some casual mishap, to have an explosion of the magnitude and the distressing effect that we did in fact experience. That state of affairs persisted for months before this pit exploded and not one member of the inspectorate ever detected it. It is unfortunate, I think, as Mr. Jones has stated in his report, that this inquiry had to be presided over by the Chief Inspector as the Commissioner. I, as everybody else, do not wish to make any sort of attack upon him and upon his desire to ascertain all the facts as they were, but, obviously, where there is liability for serious criticism being levelled at the inspectorate for which he is directly responsible, it is almost an impossible position into which to put him to ask him to preside at the inquiry. It is not only a question of unconscious bias, which anybody in that situation is bound to have, but it is a question, as was mentioned by someone on the benches in front of me, of the public being satisfied that justice has been done and that the appearance of justice being done is also present in the circumstances of the tribunal which is inquiring into this matter.
I want to draw the attention of the House to one or two matters which illustrate the points I desire to make as regards the inspectorate not, I hope, vindictively against any individuals, but merely to state the facts in order that the House may decide what action ought to be taken as a result of the disclosure. Sir Henry Walker in his report states that there is some misapprehension as to the functions of the inspectorate and he says in the passage which has so often been quoted on page 90, that the principle of Government inspection has always been that of inspection by sample. At the very outset of the history of this tragedy comes the gross neglect of the inspectorate to make Gresford one of the outstanding samples to be inspected in the North Wales area. On page 90 he points out that no steps whatever were taken to warn Mr. Dominy, the new inspector, of the whole course of the history of the mine which was known 1950 to Mr. Shaw, the preceding inspector. Mr. Dominy had no document, although there had been many complaints, particularly as regards stone-dusting, in Gresford and those facts ought to have drawn Mr. Dominy's attention to Gresford as a particular point for continued examination. Instead of that, owing to what he admits was the neglect of the inspectorate, Mr. Dominy's attention was never particularly drawn to Gresford and unfortunately the most dangerous areas in that pit were, practically speaking, never inspected at all. Compulsory publication of the inspector's report which was suggested by one of my hon. Friends would, at least, have made it clear to everybody that no such inspections had been carried out and might indeed have shamed Mr. Dominy into doing his duty which, clearly, he did not do upon the reports which are before us. Let me give one or two examples. On page 16 will be found a case in which he made a visit in December, 1933, and the paragraph winds up:He did not visit 81's road to see the gas which was there but its occurrence he said was explained to him by the manager.What is the good of an inspector, when there is an occurrence of gas in a pit, going to ask the manager about it. Yet that is what happens in this case. He does not even take the trouble when he is at the pit to investigate what is happening there. If hon. Members refer to page 45 of the Report, they will find another instance of a similar kind. This refers to a case where he went to investigate an accident in 14's district and the Report says:This was the only occasion on which an inspector had visited 14's district; the face then was comparatively little to the rise of the main return airway.It was obvious to anyone; on the plans and on the workings, that they were getting into a dangerous area which a month or two afterwards the Chief Inspector says ought to have been closed and yet not a single inspector goes near the pit to see what circumstances are developing in that area. Then, again, there is the passage on page go to which I have alreay referred, as to the failure to visit Gresford properly. Again, the records of the mine, such as they were, were never inspected with any intelligence at all and it was not until the inquiry which took 1951 place after the explosion that it was discovered that some of the most vital records of the pit were not in existence. Such things as measurement of air at the splits, stone-dust samples not being taken month after month, when they ought to have been taken every month in particular places—those things were unknown to the whole inspectorate for months and years and this condition of affairs was consequently allowed to develop.
Let me refer the House to one or two passages in the Report dealing with that matter. On page 12 it states that measurements ought to have been made in a 109's district and in 95's district, and it was never discovered that they had not been made. On page 13 it states that the deputies' reports were not kept in the office of the mine, contrary to the provisions of the Act and it was never discovered by the inspectors that this had not been done. On page 40 one finds a reference to a similar state of affairs with regard to the ventilation doors. In this case there was a very important point about two ventilation doors in the main return which were never discovered until May, 1936, two years after the explosion, which shows that not a single inspector can ever have been through that main return—a perfectly tragic state of affairs. The inquiry was almost allowed to terminate with this vitally important fact, as regards ventilation, withheld from the Commissioner by the manager and others who swore that there were no methods of adjusting the ventilation by doors or otherwise at the bottom of the pit. It was some chance knowledge, coming perhaps anonymously—I know not how—to the Chief Inspector two years after, which enabled us to ascertain those facts. On page 75 of the Report one comes to what is really almost a fantastic position as regards shot firing. It says:Mr. Dominy went through the record of shots fired again and at that time, he said, it showed that no deputy or shot-firer was firing an unreasonable number of shots per shift—the deputies 'were firing round about 20 shots and the shot-firers about 40; not more than 25 or 45.'A little lower down we find this conclusion:My own conclusion on this point after reviewing the evidence is, that in the conditions prevailing in the Dennis Section, 40 shots was a reasonable shift's work for a shot-firer and no deputy should have been allowed to fire any shots except on special occasions.1952 Mr. Dominy when he inspects the pit, not knowing the condition of the Dennis Section, poor man, never having seen them, says that shot-firers are properly allowed to fire 25 shots a shift! One could go on giving instances and I will merely refer hon. Members to other passages which I have not time to cite on pages 81, 82, 83 and 84 of the Report. There will be found the criticism of the Chief Inspector on the complete neglect of the inspectorate to detect the fact that dust samples were not being taken over a long period of time. He says it was inexcusable. On pages 86 and 87 we come to the question of overtime. The Minister had ordered a special inspection of North Wales. The inspector, Mr. Dominy, went down to look at the pit and never even asked a question of the manager. The manager said that if he had been asked he would have told them that overtime was taking place every Friday and Sunday. As the Chief Inspector found, in fact the regulations as regards hours did not operate in Gresford at all. In the circumstances of a pit such as that, to have large numbers of men working double shift is just the way to create an accident which is going to light the pit and, curiously enough, the accident happened on Friday night when the double shift was working. This House gets back a report and the Minister answers a question and says that he is satisfied that no overtime is being worked in the mines of North Wales. Now we know with what he was satisfied. This House was being grossly misled, because of the incompetence and negligence of the inspectorate on that occasion. The result, the tragic result, is that there was a complete failure to detect, whether by sample or otherwise, a state of affairs in that mine which Sir Henry Walker, now, unfortunately, 2½ years after the catastrophe, describes in these words:As far as 95's district the ventilation was gravely inadequate.On page 36:It was a situation of great danger.On page 63:Work on 24's and 95's face should have been stopped.On page 117 he says:I look with grave suspicion upon circumstances existing in connection with 24's airway and 95's district as the origin of the explosion.1953 As far as 14's is concerned he tells us on page 38:It was not proper to continue to work face until a connection direct to the main return airway had been made.On page 58 he said:Ventilation of 14's face was not adequate.After the fall on the 24th May, that is four months before the explosion:The position was so precarious that drastic remedies were needed and should have been taken.On page 63 he says those drastic remedies should have been the complete stopping of work on 14's face. The tragedy is that these gross neglects of the law as regards ventilation of that mine should only have been appreciated by the inspectorate two years after the tragedy has taken place. For that I can find in this Report no conceivable excuse, and in the face of disclosures such as that it is the duty of this House to see that ample funds are provided in order to make it certain in future that the inspectorate will be of such a calibre and of such a size that there can never again develop in a pit a state of affairs, unknown to the inspectorate, such as existed in the Gresford colliery.
This raises also the whole question of safety control in the mines, and on reading the Report one cannot fail to appreciate the fact that under the industrial circumstances of to-day reliance cannot be placed upon the management to look after the safety of the miners, nor upon the deputies, nor even upon the miners themselves. Let me refer to one or two passages on that point. A great many of them have already been read, and I would only state their effect. On pages 112 and 113 and on page 8 as well the position of the management is dealt with, and the chief inspector comes to the conclusion that:There must have been constraint put upon the manager by the owners, otherwise his conduct is absolutely inexplicable.I think anybody who reads the Report must agree with that. As regards the under-manager, first of all there were not sufficient under-managers, or overmen, in the mine for there ever to be any management control during the night shift at all throughout the whole of the time at Gresford. Secondly, as is pointed out on page 113, the under-manager would obviously have been afraid to 1954 make any complaint over the head of the manager, and he would have been regarded, it is stated, as disloyal if he had done so. Disloyal to the owners; but what about the men who, as a result of that, are dead in the mine? It was pointed out that he was working 12½ hours a day. What sort of work of a responsible character can a man do day after day when he works 12½ hours, and even went back in the evening to the office and worked longer hours still? As regards deputies, it is quite clear from the evidence on pages 36 and 51 that the chief inspector considered their evidence unreliable, and anybody who listened to them must have come to the same conclusion. As regards the men, he points out on page 88 that they were quite clearly afraid because of victimisation. I can reinforce that opinion because of the extreme difficulty I had to persuade any of those men to come forward and give evidence. I had to go to them and pledge my personal word that if there was victimisation I would personally raise it in the House of Commons, and it was only on that pledge that I could get any of them to come forward and give evidence. Anybody who has realised that atmosphere knows perfectly well the power of the suggestion of victimisation, especially where you have a community as at Gresford, dependent entirely upon a single mine.
The position as regards shot firing in this mine demonstrates only too clearly the dangers that arise when deputies have their energies absorbed in production work as against safety work. The conclusion at which the Chief Inspector arrives, and with which I thoroughly agree, is that the deputies should never fire any shots at all. I believe that is the right conclusion, which ought to be put into force at once. It could be put into force at once, but, of course, it means the employment of extra men and more cost, and that is why the deputies in Gresford were firing up to 60 shots a shift, at the same time as being supposed to carry out their safety duties. Unless some method is devised by which independent persons can be responsible for the safety in the mines, I believe that you will never get over that great difficulty. There ought, in every mine, to be some independent judge of the safety position of that mine, and not responsible to the owner, whether the job be done 1955 by the inspectorate or by a special man on each shift in the mine responsible for safety and for nothing else. He should not be responsible to the owners, and perhaps not paid by them either. Whichever way it is done, something of that sort must be done if the safety regulations are to be properly carried out.
That is the first side of the problem—to make effective for the men's protection the regulations that already exist and the law that is already there. The second side of the problem is to adapt to modem methods of machine mining the regulations of the past which were intended for and were applicable to hand mining and nothing else. Three matters stand out from this Report as regards the necessary extension of safety. First there is the danger of shot firing to the extent which it took place in this mine, and must always take place where machine mining is carried on on this system. Secondly, there are the dangers arising from stone dusting, or the lack of stone dusting. Thirdly, there is the greatest problem of all, that of increasing the ventilation where there is this very rapid carrying forward of the face, seven yards a week, where you are getting enormous quantities of gas released from your rapid mining of the coal and where you are getting very bad packing, as the result of which there are large waste spaces behind which become veritable gasometers, as was stated at the inquiry. This is by far the most important matter. To get proper ventilation is the sovereign way of stopping explosions in mines.
It is essential that much more precise regulations than at present exist should be laid down as regards the airways in mines, and the volume of air on the face compared with the tonnage of coal that is being got from the face. In my view, it would be advisable to have some method of automatically detecting the presence of gas in the main bulk of air, as has been suggested. Many of the detectors being worked out now are in a sufficiently good state of perfection to allow of their universal operation.
As regards shot firing, the obvious cure is to stop the deputies from firing shots. That is the first thing, and the second, which I believe is well worth considering, is the suggestion which was made by my hon. Friend, that a period of time should 1956 be arranged in the working so that men could be cleared right out of the area where shots were being fired. As regards stone dusting, the position is obviously dangerous and unsatisfactory. A 50 per cent. figure is not a safe one, with regard to certain classes of coal. That has already been ascertained, and yet the figure still remains in the regulations and has to be complied with. It is quite true that it is not the maximum, but the minimum; yet it is in many cases clearly not safe, and not safe from two points of view. You may get a directly explosive gas, or you may get a condition of affairs that will carry an explosion which has occurred in some other way. That again is a matter with which the Minister could deal immediately, by altering the percentages in regard to the amount of dust which it is necessary to have.
I must say that, so far as I am concerned, I thought the Minister's statement was highly unsatisfactory. It did not seem to me to show in the least an appreciation of the gravity of this Report or of the urgency of the situation. Gresford has now been fully explored as regards the conditions which there existed. What I ask myself is: How many more mines are there in England like Gresford to-day? How many other 14's areas are there underground in this country where men are working and waiting day by day, as these men in Gresford waited, for the inevitable to happen? That is what the mining community of this country want to know, and it is what I hope this House will insist upon knowing, and the public as well. It is not satisfactory merely to say that we are going to wait for some Royal Commission to report. Certain matters have been fully disclosed, and they must be dealt with at once.
So far as the inspectorate is concerned, as I have already said, I do not desire to be vindictive against any individual, but if the behaviour of these inspectors as disclosed in the Report, is allowed to pass without even a reprimand from the Minister, indeed, almost with his approval, all I can say is that it is going to be an extremely serious matter as regards the morale of the Inspectorate of Mines in this country. If it is thought that they can get away with the inefficiency, the mistakes, indeed the neglect that was shown as regards Gresford, then certainly the public mind is not going to be satisfied that the inspectorate 1957 is providing that degree of regulation as regards safety which it is intended to provide, and for which it is paid. It is absolutely essential that it should be made clear beyond any possibility of doubt that, so far as the Mines Inspectorate is concerned, conditions such as are disclosed in this Report can never happen again, and I think the whole House will agree with me that we must insist upon that at least being the outcome of this Report and of this discussion. If these things can be allowed to pass with the sort of speech that the Minister has made here about them, we have no guarantee that a similar state of affairs is not going on in some other Dart of the country, that Mr. Dominy has not gone to some other district where fresh Gresfords will arise in the future, or that some other junior inspectors are not behaving in a similarly casual way.
This tragedy is a great tragedy for those who still are suffering from the loss of their menfolk, and it will be a tragedy which will bring no advantage to the rest of the mining community or to the rest of the community in this country, unless this House is prepared to learn the lessons of that tragedy and, having learned them, determines at all costs to see that in the future advantage is taken of them and that both by the inspectorate and by new regulations it is made impossible for others to suffer as those at Gresford suffered.
§ 10.31 p.m.
§ Captain Crookshank
I can only speak again by leave of the House, but if the House will allow me to say a few words in reply to the very serious Debate that we have had, I shall be very much obliged. A certain number of questions have been asked and I will answer what I can in the time that is left. I am pleased that the Opposition put down a Motion and that we have not had this discussed merely on the Adjournment, in which case it would have been impossible within the Rules of Order to deal with possible legislation. Certainly the Debate has been fruitful of a great many suggestions. I think, however, that I can truthfully say that there is not a single point that has been made in that direction which has not already formed the subject of considerable evidence, written and oral, before the Royal Commission. If hon. Members had kept abreast, as I have done, with the evidence as it has 1958 been given, they would have found the answer to a great many difficulties which have presented themselves to-day. The hon. and learned Gentleman who has just sat down was preceded a little time before by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingswinford (Mr. A. Henderson). There must be few, if any, precedents for a Debate following an inquiry taking place in which speeches have been made by two of the principal legal luminaries engaged in the inquiry. The result is that I am obviously at some disadvantage as compared with the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps), because he has been personally involved in this inquiry so very much longer than I have.
I do not want to deal seriatim with all the points that he made, but there is one where he is in error, and that is when he impugns the reliability of a report presented to the House about overtime. That report was about Lancashire and did not cover North Wales. It is true that inquiries were made about overtime at Gresford, as is mentioned on page 87 of the Report, but that was not in connection with the particular formal inquiry. While we are on that point, of course the hon. and learned Gentleman did not find out, as he might have done, that when Mr. Boydell, the senior inspector, saw the acting secretary of the union to try to get from him specific instances of overtime, these could not be produced. The Commissioner said in his report that it is very curious that if, in point of fact, it was the practice for men who had worked the morning or afternoon shift on Friday to work also the night shift on that day each week, such a practice was quite unknown to the miners' secretary, and this despite the fact that a specific request had been made for information. It is one of the points that the Chief Inspector made, which I referred to earlier on, that in some instances, in his opinion, there was some kind of tacit arrangement between the management and the workers. The point that I wanted to clear up is that North Wales and Gresford in particular was not covered by the Lancashire inquiry, about which a report was made to this House.
Among the various points that have emerged most vividly during the course of the Debate first of all there is the question, with which I have already dealt, 1959 of the suitability or otherwise of Sir Henry Walker being a Commissioner at this inquiry. I repeat that that was done after consultation with the Mineworkers' Federation of Great Britain. At one time it was not intended that he should be the Commissioner, but they were consulted, and, as the House was informed on 30th October, 1934, it was after consultation with and in accordance with their wishes that this appointment was made. I stress that fact, because while hon. Members are quite as sincere, no doubt, as Mr. Jones in saying it was a pity it happened, I want them to realise where a great deal of the responsibility for that appointment lies. In an investigation which was to concern the men in such a great calamity, it would be natural for anyone holding my position to consult with the Mineworkers Federation, and it was after that consultation that that appointment was made. For the future, as I said earlier on, each case must be considered as and when it—and we hope that it will not—should arise.
The only hon. Member, I think, who made any question about the subject of having a formal judicial inquiry was the hon. Member for Kingswinford (Mr. A. Henderson), who said he thought that there should be some judicial person in charge of any inquiry of any magnitude. However, he put his finger on an important point, and that is, that there are a great number of these inquiries, unfortunately, owing to accidents occurring in the course of years, and I do not know whether the standard which he had in view was a standard to be compared with the number of men killed or something of that kind. I do not know how many were meant, and he did not embroider it, but there might be some limitation.
There were some questions asked by the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Ritson) about the reopening of Gresford. He seemed to think that one of the reasons why this had not been done was that it was costly. As a matter of fact, as the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for East Bristol and the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell), who have been concerned in this affair all along, know, it has been a very anxious point for consideration as to whether it was at any time safe to open this colliery and to go into the area in which the 1960 catastrophe took place. Mr. Ivon Graham and Professor Jones who are two great authorities on the subject of heating, have been all along from time to time taking tests to see whether, in their opinion, it would be safe to enter, and that opinion has not yet been given. Desirable though no doubt it would be to find out, if one could at this late stage, after so much time has elapsed, the actual place, origin and cause, if one could determine it, of the explosion, it certainly would not in my opinion—I am quite convinced and satisfied about that—be right to endanger the life of anyone now by premature entry. Hon. Gentlemen referred to what had happened at Whitehaven. I have no doubt that it is within the recollection of many hon. Members that that was a pit which was opened prematurely, and that there was a terrible catastrophe as a result, in which 13 lives were lost, including the under-manager, the miners' agent, several deputies and two of His Majesty's inspectors. I do not, and I am sure that the House do not, want to have any recurrence of that kind.
Before I come to the more general question, I pass on to another matter which was raised, incidentally, by two hon. Members, my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ripon (Major Hills) and the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. G. Griffiths), and which was answered by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson)—the question of the use of automatic firedamp detectors. This is a problem which my right hon. and gallant Friend has made his own for a very long time in this House. Other hon. Members have for a considerable time been asking questions whether it is possible to make the use of any existing detector compulsory. The answer is that when the Firedamp Detector Regulations were passed rather less than two years ago it was intended that there should be a period of something like two years of experiment in order to find out whether this or any other method of automatic detector was of use or sufficiently reliable. It is no use putting up an automatic arrangement unless you are quite certain that it will work in an emergency, or you are so near being quite certain that you can authorise its universal use. It was intended that somewhere towards the end of the two-year period the matter should be investigated in order that a decision might be taken.
1961 Those hon. Members who have followed the replies which I have given from time to time will know that I have not been entirely satisfied with the extent of the experiments made in the mining areas, and a small departmental and technical committee is sitting, under the chairmanship of one of my predecssors, Mr. Isaac Foot, in order to advise whether this particular detector is now sufficiently proved to be put into compulsory use, or alternatively, what other suggestions they have to make. It will probably be within the recollection of some hon. Members that the Mining Association not long ago offered a prize for any other automatic detector which might be produced and which could be used in the same sort of way. That is the position at the moment, and it is quite irrespective of the report of the Royal Commission. I told the Royal Commission when I set up the committee that this was a very important problem but only a small part of the problems they were covering, and that it might be useful to have it cleared up straight away, if we could do so.
§ Captain Crookshank
But it is not as big as the whole field of safety and health. I hope we may get an early report from that Committee, and then we shall be able better to judge the situation.
§ Captain Crookshank
The next point was raised in two speeches, which cancelled each other out, by the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. G. Macdonald) and the hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. R. J. Taylor). The hon. Member for Ince suggested a course that might be adopted to get over the difficulty which many hon. Members feel about the possibility of victimisation, if a person, of whatever status in the industry, makes a report which is not agreeably received by the employer. He suggested that there might be some sort of appeal arrangement, whether affecting workmen, deputies or managers. The hon. Member for Morpeth pointed 1962 out that sometimes the alleged victimisation did not take place for weeeks, and possibly months. That is part of the difficulty which would be encountered in connection with any proposal of that kind. It would require legislation, and it is one of the matters which have been raised by various witnesses before the Royal Commission. Possibly they may find themselves able to advise on some form of machinery or give us some advice on the problem. The effectiveness of such machinery requires a great deal of study. If the alleged victimisation occurs five or six months after the event hon. Members will see how extremely difficult it would be to deal with a problem of that kind.
I should like to tell the hon. Member for East Leyton (Sir F. Mills) that whoever else did not read the speech he made in 1932 I have read it, and I read it with interest. It raised problems which were certainly startling as far as the practice of this country is concerned, and we are grateful to the hon. Member for having referred us to it again. Perhaps mining engineers and others will take the opportunity of reading the suggestions he made in that speech.
The hon. and learned Member for East Bristol said that he thought it would be a good thing for a proper enforcement of the law that in every pit there should be an independent person responsible for safety. That may be a very attractive theory, but it is not the theory held in the mining world. It is not the theory put forward by the Mineworkers' Federation, it is not the proposal of those to whom I normally look for advice and guidance in these problems. If the hon. and learned Member will look at the evidence given to the Royal Commission on 14th December he will see that Mr. Joseph Jones, in answering question No. 26,329, by the Chairman on the subject of government inspectors, said:We do not say that the powers of the inspectorate should be increased; on the contrary, we say that the manager should be in supreme control.That is where the responsibility lies to-day. The responsibility lies to-day with the manager or the owners, so far as the manager does not accept responsibility, but the general fact now is that the manager is the person who is in supreme control, and that is what the 1963 President of the Mineworkers Federation of Great Britan wishes to see continued. He said:Our general line is that we want more inspectors solely for the purpose of ensuring a more adequate inspection, and not for the purpose of in any way impinging on the duties or authority of the manager.He also went on to say that the inspectors are best able to know the varying standards of different pits, and that in his view:Every mine should be inspected throughout at least once a year.I am sure the House will not want me to prejudge an issue which is before the Royal Commission. My Department gave evidence before the Royal Commission with regard to the inspectorate and workmen's inspectors. We pointed out the exact position. It is one of the pities of the North Wales position, and of Gresford in particular, that there was no system of workmen's inspectors in that pit. It is one of the things, I think, of the greatest possible value, and it is a thousand pities that it was not prevalent there. All these points are matters for large questions of organisation which, terrible though this tragedy is, and with all due respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman, we should not hustle into adopting unthinkingly. It was for that purpose largely that the Royal Commission was set up.
There is one point I should stress again, and that is the point about making complaints. I should like to call the attention of the House to the sentence on page 89 of the Report, where the Commissioner says itappeared to come as a matter of surprise to many at the Inquiry.to know that the inspectors pay attention not only to complaints made by trade unions or Members of Parliament or whoever else it may be, but also to those which are made unsigned. That has been a standing instruction for 35 years, and it is as clear as it could be in the instructions to the inspectors, because I have looked up the phrase to see if it could be strengthened. It has been made clear that any complaint from whatever source should be noted, and also that the greatest possible attention should be given that it should not come out in any way that a complaint has been made, still less by whom, but that the inspector should go and investigate in the course of his duties. If there are any further 1964 precautions that could be taken I would be glad to hear of them, because in spite of the fact that investigation is made when the complaints are anonymous, it is in my view very strange how few complaints inspectors actually get. I gave the figures for North Wales before, but I have them for the whole country over the last two years, and they are extraordinarily small.
That is a difficulty I find myself up against in this House. Hon. Members frequently put questions about some little trouble, it may be overtime in the area, or one or other of the various regulations, and I always ask for details, but it is not every time that I get them. Therefore, I repeat that the more the men in general realise that complaints are investigated from the point of view of trying to find if there is anything wrong, and also from the point of view of trying to safeguard the position of the person who makes the complaint, so much the better. The hon. Gentleman in his opening speech more or less implied that, because I caught the words that from top to bottom no one at Gresford had the courage or the character to protest. Those are hard words coming from him, but on the Report we must accept them as fact. The Debate, I hope, has made clear if people did not realise it before, what the situation is.
The hon. and learned Gentleman had a number of complaints to make about myself and my actions, but I think perhaps he omitted to realise that on behalf of the Government I have accepted this Motion, and that I have said we will do whatever we can to try and seethat the industry is carried on under conditions of maximum safety.I know that "maximum" is an adjective, and is therefore subject to interpretation, but nevertheless the general effect of the Motion is that we are all at one in wanting to do all we can as soon as possible—some things by regulation and some by legislation—to try to make the pits as reasonably safe—if I may use the word "reasonably" without offence—as they can be made.
An hon. Gentleman opposite has said that I am complacent, and I suppose he will say that even more when I have made my next remark, but I will make it all the same. The hon. Member opposite who once held my position knows as well as I do that there, is one day 1965 in the week which every Secretary for Mines dislikes, and that is the day on which there is put before him the accident record of the previous seven days. All of us have our good days and our bad days, days which we like and days which we do not like; but I am sure everyone who has held my position hates that day. The tragedy is that there are figures every week. Last week, as I was coming down to the House, I saw on the newspaper placards outside "Colliery Disaster" and I saw in the newspapers next day that there had taken place what was called the second colliery disaster this year. The tragedy is that that statement was not true. There is some sort of tragedy almost every day. Although it is not recorded in the London Press or put on the placards, it is reported in the local Press and is a tragedy in one or perhaps two households. The big catastrophes, when they come, shake the whole country, but the tragedy of day-to-day accidents is not so well realised.
May I put this to the House? Let us at least show some gratitude that, when all is said and done, the fatalities last year were the lowest of any normal year. We are making strides in bringing down the total of fatal accidents in this country. Last year the total was down to 777. The efforts which are being made by the inspectorate, by mining engineers and by scientists are gradually having some effect—[Interruption]—or if they are not having any effect, we are being a little more fortunate in 1936 than we were in previous years. But the net result is that fewer men lost their lives last year than in any other year.
§ Captain Crookshank
The accident rate per 100,000 man-shifts worked was at a figure which, in its lowness, had only once been equalled before. As another test, the figure per 1,000,000 tons of minerals raised—although some hon. Members do not like that test—compared very favourably last year with the figure for the preceding year. Let us at least take heart out of catastrophes of this kind. Let us go on struggling to reduce by whatever means we can, whether by science, by law, or by administration, whether by employers or by workpeople, the accidents that take place. The task 1966 is not an easy one, but it is one in which we all want to press on. I hope and pray that in the coming years we may succeed more and more.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
That this House views with deep concern the conditions revealed by the inquiry into the Gresford Colliery explosion in which two hundred and sixty-five lives were lost, and is of opinion that grave responsibility rests upon the country and Parliament to prevent such disasters by adopting immediate and effective measures for ensuring that the industry is carried on under conditions of maximum safety.