§ Mr. Speaker
Before I call the Minister to move the Motion on the Order Paper, I would point out that there are 16 hon. Gentlemen on both sides who wish to take part in this debate. I realise how much the debate means to them in all sorts of ways. I hope that they will help each other by making their speeches reasonably brief, so that I can call all of them.
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes)
I beg to move,That this House takes note of the Report of the Tribunal appointed under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 to inquire into the disaster at Aberfan (House of Commons Paper No. 553).Just over a year ago this House and the whole world was shocked to learn of the dreadful tragedy which had occurred at Aberfan, a small mining village near Merthyr Tydfil. Hundreds of thousands of tons of colliery waste suddenly moved down the steep mountainside and overwhelmed a large part of the junior school and a number of houses in the vicinity. Desperate efforts at rescue were made by those nearby, who were joined by others who poured into Aberfan from all over South Wales and beyond, but no one was taken out of the ruins alive later than two hours after the first movement of the tip, and a hundred and forty four persons, the majority of them young children, lost their lives.
As soon as news of the tragedy reached me I went immediately to Aberfan to see whether I could be of use. After seeing the site my first concern was to clarify the division of responsibility for the work that was going on. The Chief Constable of Merthyr had been placed in overall operational charge, and I confirmed this. The National Coal Board was asked to concentrate on the stabilisation of the tip, and the local authority was asked to take full responsibility for all the rescue work. The other local authorities, who had so readily and promptly come to help, willingly accepted my invitation to put their resources temporarily under the control of the officials of the Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council.
1910 Later that evening I was joined by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who made it clear that the whole of the resources of the Government were at my disposal for the rescue operation. Other colleagues in the Government also came to the site.
I have already in this House thanked all those who took part in the rescue operation for the splendid work which they performed in the most harrowing circumstances.
No time was lost in setting up a Tribunal of Inquiry into all the circumstances of the disaster and we were fortunate to secure the services as Chairman of Lord Justice Edmund Davies, a Welshman born and bred in a neighbouring valley and renowned for his distinction as a lawyer and for his humanitarian sympathy, and as members of the Tribunal with him, Mr. Harold Harding, the eminent civil engineer, and Mr. Vernon Lawrence, the greatly respected former Clerk to the Monmouthshire County Council.
Lord Justice Edmund Davies promptly visited the scene of the disaster and arrangements were quickly made for the Tribunal to sit at Merthyr Tydfil and a preliminary meeting was held on 8th November. The proceedings were opened on 29th November by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, and so began what was to prove the longest inquiry of its kind in British legal history.
Written statements were taken by the Treasury Solicitor from all who wished to give evidence, about 250 witnesses in all, and of these 136 gave oral evidence also, being examined and cross-examined by counsel and questioned by members of the Tribunal. Including the preliminary meeting the Tribunal sat in public for 77 days, first at Merthyr Tydfil and later at Cardiff, and commanded, I believe, universal admiration for their patience and thoroughness in elucidating the facts. The Tribunal finally rose at the end of April and the members then addressed themselves to the massive task of sifting the evidence and drawing up their report and recommendations.
As the House knows, the Chairman placed a copy of the Tribunal's Report in my hands in the latter half of July and it was printed by order of the House 1911 and published on 3rd August. It is not my intention to go through the Report, but I am sure that it would be the wish of the House that I should express our admiration for the high sense of duty with which the Tribunal applied itself to its most onerous task and our gratitude for its findings and for its recommendations on the measures needed to prevent a recurrence of such a disaster. These findings and recommendations, as has been made clear already, have commanded general acceptance by Her Majesty's Government. We are all much indebted to Lord Justice Edmund Davies and his colleagues who have performed a great public service.
Before I come to action taken on receipt of the Report, I should like to say a word or two about action taken during, and even before, the sittings of the Tribunal. Immediately after the disaster the National Coal Board ordered an inspection of all tips, active or disused, in the Board's ownership and my right hon. Friend, the Minister of Housing and Local Government and I invited local authorities in England and Wales, invoking the assistance of the National Coal Board as necessary, to arrange for an inspection of all tips in private ownership. These measures disclosed potential instability in several tips and appropriate precautions were taken and remedial action put in hand at once.
The incidents which occurred during the heavy rains of last week, however, although relatively minor in character, demonstrated that some tips can still present problems and that much remains to be done. As hon. Members will hear from my right hon. Friend who hopes to wind up this debate, the efforts of the National Coal Board, the Government, and all concerned, are being directed to ensure that all problems, both large and small, can be foreseen and promptly dealt with.
One of the results of the disaster at Aberfan was to give a new stimulus also to the effort to clear up the land left derelict by industrial processes of the past, a problem of which everyone has long been uncomfortably aware, especially in the mining valleys of South Wales. The objective of this effort is not only to reclaim land now useless so that it may be available for industry or 1912 housing or other beneficial use, but also to make these areas more attractive to incoming industry and for those who live in them. To pursue this objective more effectively, shortly after the disaster I set up in the Welsh Office in Cardiff a Derelict Land Unit to work closely with the local authorities in preparing schemes of rehabilitation and getting them carried out.
With the co-operation of the Board of Trade, progress has already been made to an extent which is, I think, most encouraging. So far, the unit has had discussions with 60 local authorities and has visited 115 derelict sites, covering approximately 2,650 acres, in 42 of these local authority areas. The unit has been asked to help by preparing outline proposals for 48 sites, covering about 1,000 acres, and has prepared such proposals for 10 of these sites and is at present engaged on preparing them for others.
The first stage of one large tip scheme has been completed and work on others is well under way—for example, work on the huge Lewis Merthyr tip in the Rhondda, being done in conjunction with a coal recovery operation. Achievement of the objective inevitably takes a very long time. One cannot heal in a day the scars of great wounds made over generations. It is a task of great magnitude. But during this past year much more work has been done or started than in the whole of the preceding five years—and the way has been prepared for a much accelerated rate of progress in the future.
The National Coal Board has also changed its basic structure and now has three levels of authority instead of the former five. This change, which was in hand before Aberfan for other reasons, should go a long way to reducing the difficulties of communication to which the Tribunal drew attention. This reorganisation took effect from the beginning of April this year. The Board's civil engineering organisation has also been strengthened and a post of area civil engineer has been created in each area. The many detailed measures which the Board has taken to improve its organisation and avoid blurring of responsibilities are summarised in a note which has been made available in the Vote Office by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power.
1913 Now to return to the Report. The oral evidence tendered to the Tribunal was recorded in a daily transcript which was made available to all the parties appearing before the Tribunal, and of course, to the Tribunal members. Copies of the written evidence received a similar circulation so far as the number of copies available permitted. The Tribunal, in its Report, quotes freely from both the oral and the written evidence and the Report promised the publication of the papers recording the results of the investigations carried out, in view of their scientific interest and importance.
Arrangements for the publication of this material are well forward, but I must tell the House that the volume is unlikely to appear before next Easter. The reason for this is that it is necessary to redraw, so as to render them suitable for printing, the large number of maps, diagrams and drawings which accompany the text. To publish the text alone would be simpler, but useless, as much of it is a commentary on the illustrations drawings and diagrams. The work is going ahead with all speed and I am told that those who are familiar with the processes of printing scientific documents will be well satisfied if the date I have mentioned can in fact be met.
Now I come to the Tribunal's lessons and recommendations and the action which is being taken, or has already been taken, to implement them. Some, as the Tribunal pointed out, require legislation and this is being prepared with a view to its being introduced next Session.
One of the Questions to be considered is what should be done about the remaining tips at Aberfan. I say "remaining tips" because, during the course of the very extensive work which has been done by the National Coal Board since the disaster, to ensure safety, the rest of the disaster tip has virtually disappeared, and the area of hillside over which it slipped has been cleaned up and covered with a new growth of grass.
In the spring of this year, the National Coal Board commissioned a landscape consultant, who has lived 20 years in Wales, to prepare a scheme taking into account all the considerations. This scheme, illustrated by a large scale model, was explained to representatives of the Aberfan Parents and Residents' Association, accompanied by their expert advisers, 1914 and to representatives and officials of the Merthyr Tydfil Corporation, at a meeting in the Welsh Office a week ago, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. The model is now on display in the village of Aberfan.
This scheme incorporates all the further safety measures proposed by all the expert advisers who gave evidence before the Tribunal. Apart from these further safety measures, the proposals involve reducing the height of the tips, smoothing the contours, and sowing and planting the whole area below the area of burning tip material with grass, gorse, broom and a variety of trees, including some fairly large transplanted trees.
I understand that the preliminary civil engineering works—that is to say, the further drainage measures, the removal and redisposition of substantial quantities of tip material, and the terracing—can be completed in about a year. If a beginning is made soon, perhaps all and certainly the greatest part of the sowing and planting can then be done in the planting season of the winter of 1968–69; and, by the spring of 1969, not only would the whole of the tips complex be greatly altered in outline, but also the whole of the area below the burning tips would be green.
Most of the Tribunal's recommendations are of general application. First of all, the Tribunal stated that tips should all be regarded as potentially dangerous, although the Tribunal recognises that the dangers mainly arise with active working tips; secondly, tips should all be treated as engineering structures and, therefore, the procedures of preliminary site investigation and subsequent control customary in other branches of civil engineering should be applied. These two propositions are accepted by the National Coal Board and are already being acted on. I commend them to all who are in any way concerned with spoil heaps, whether connected with the coal industry or not.
I have already mentioned the new structure of the National Coal Board, which will improve, among other things, the state of internal communications. The observations of the Tribunal upon this aspect are not, I am sure, unheeded by many—and I am not now referring only to the coal industry—who have had 1915 occasion to consider how their own conduct would have stood up to a similar searching inquiry. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that there is a lesson here for us all, for everybody engaged in any enterprise where more than a handful of people are involved.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Power proposes to appoint a National Tip Safety Committee to advise him, and perhaps other Ministers, also, on problems affecting the stability of tips. Discussions are now going on as to the terms of reference such a Committee might have and I hope to see it constituted in the very near future. The Committee, when set up, will be asked as one of its first tasks to consider a standard code of practice.
The Tribunal's recommendations which require legislation fall mainly within the field of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power, who will be replying to this debate on behalf of the Government, though there is one matter affecting local authorities which is in the field of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government and myself.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Power is preparing legislation to amend the Mines and Quarries Act, 1954, so as to give effect to those of the Tribunal's recommendations which require new legislation. He will give the House details of his proposals and the House may take it that they will be comprehensive. Broadly speaking, the Ministry of Power and the Mines Inspectorate will be given the additional powers and duties recommended by the Tribunal and tips forming part of active mines and quarries will be regularly inspected by persons competent to judge their stability.
I should like myself to say something about the powers and responsibilities of local authorities, although details will need to be worked out in consultation with local authority associations. If any local authority has any reason to fear that a working tip presents a hazard, it should at once inform the Ministry of Power or the local Inspector of Mines. The Ministry will immediately make an investigation and, if need be, require the owner to carry out tests or remedial work. If the local authority is still not satisfied, the matter can be referred to an inde- 1916 pendent arbiter, who will be empowered to order further work to be done.
In the case of a disused tip which gives cause for anxiety, a local authority should also get in touch with the Ministry and obtain the advice of the Mines Inspectorate. In the light of this advice, the local authority could decide whether there was a prima facie case of instability. The authority would be empowered to require the owner to carry out specified tests and to furnish a report and also to carry out specified remedial work. The local authority would also have default powers to carry out tests or do the works themselves or appoint contractors to do so. If the owner objected to any test or remedial work, he could appeal to the Minister of Power.
These proposed arrangements should go far to ensure that local authorities are fully empowered to protect the inhabitants of their area—a protection which, as the Tribunal pointed out, it is every citizen's right to expect.
Besides safety, there is the question of the general appearance of working tips. The local planning authorities are able to control this by imposing conditions when they grant planning permission. This applies both to tipping operations and also to the recovery of material from disused tips
I now turn to a subject on which the Tribunal very properly made no recommendation, though no small part of its Report was concerned with it, namely, the responsibility of individuals for the disaster and the strictures passed on other individuals whose conduct was censured by the Tribunal. This aspect of the Report has received long and anxious consideration by the Government, by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power and by the National Coal Board. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General came to the conclusion that the facts disclosed by the Report did not justify the institution of criminal proceedings. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Power did not accept the offered resignation of the Chairman of the National Coal Board and made known his reasons for asking Lord Robens to continue in office. Those individuals named in the Report who are still in the service of the National Coal Board have been moved to other work.
1917 In paragraph 210 of the Report the Tribunal referred to "the vastly disagreeable task of censure" which the sense of public duty of its members obliged it to carry out. In a moving passage in paragraph 207, the Tribunal expressed its belief thatWhether or not named or adversely referred to in this Report, there must be many today with hearts made heavy and haunted by the thought that if only they had done this, that or the other the disaster might have been averted. Of these, some will blame themselves needlessly; others, while blameworthy in some degree, will condemn themselves with excessive harshness; yet others must carry the heavy burden of knowing that their neglect played an unmistakeable part in bringing about the tragedy.There, in my view, the matter ought now to be allowed to rest.
Finally, I should like to speak of the village of Aberfan as it is today. A sad anniversary has just passed and renewed the poignancy of grief for those who lost loved ones. But life must go on, and Aberfan is bravely facing the task of physical reconstruction and its families the no less difficult task of restoring mental tranquillity. Thanks to the wonderfully generous response of the public to the appeal for the Aberfan Fund, the resources are not lacking. But if the inhabitants are to find peace, they need a period away from the glare of publicity to which they have been exposed for so long. I appeal to everyone to give them the quiet they need to bear their burden of grief and to rebuild their shattered lives.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Mr. David Gibson-Watt (Hereford)
I am sure that the House will be grateful to the Secretary of State for the very sympathetic way in which he has dealt with this very difficult subject, for 21st October, 1966, will certainly rank as one of the grimmest days in Welsh history. It is not the first time that a mining community has suffered, for mining is a hard and dangerous calling, but it is the first time in the long history of the mining industry that the young have had to suffer.
Anyone who knows the valleys of Wales will agree that they have a special character. They are close communities. The valley which contains the two villages of Aberfan and Merthyr Vale has a 1918 community that is especially close, for a great proportion of the men employed there are employed in the Merthyr Vale Colliery. Mining, with all its hazards, creates a particular fraternity among those men, and this closeness was certainly never shown to better advantage than in the awful moments that followed the fatal disaster in October last year.
Whatever we say today in this debate, we should bear in mind that our main objective is to heal and to give strength to these people, and we should honour those who have suffered and not add to their suffering.
We would all wish to pay tribute to the many who helped after the disaster—the many volunteers spearheaded, of course, by the miners themselves; to the police, the Civil Defence, the ambulance and nursing services and other public bodies, the many voluntary services and organisations and, indeed, to the troops who came in later. Nor should the Welsh Office be without its share of credit, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said in the House some days after the disaster.
The administrative job, as the Secretary of State has said, was complicated by two factors: first, Aberfan falls under two authorities—Glamorgan and Merthyr Tydvil; secondly, the vast number of people who flocked to Aberfan on that day, some to gaze helplessly but many more to dig and to work. I myself, like other Members of the House, saw dozens of young volunteers going in their cars with equipment, only to be turned away, so great was the crush within the valley. Considering these two problems—the duplication of administration and the crowds who flocked there—the rescue and the clearance work was certainly very well done.
I would ask the Minister whether the aftermath of this disaster has perhaps changed some of the thinking in the Home Office on this matter. I also ask this question: on such an occasion, who should be in charge—a Minister, a mayor, a policeman or a Civil Defence officer. I think perhaps more guidance might be given on this point from the Home Office in case of any trouble in the future.
The Tribunal set up by the Secretary of State for Wales was, as the right hon. 1919 Gentleman said, composed of three well-known men, and was under the chairmanship of Sir Edmund Davies, a Lord Justice of Appeal, a popular man who was born and bred in the valleys. It is clear that they carried out their unpleasant and difficult task with sympathy and competence, and, indeed patience, for this Tribunal went on for an unnecessarily long time.
The Tribunal's Report is clear. It is detailed and it makes recommendations to help the avoidance of future such disasters. On page 131 is the summary of its findings. The first finding is:Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board.The reasons for its findings are detailed in the Report, and the men whom the Tribunal describe as not being without blame have been named. I do not intend to pursue this. It is a heavy punishment indeed to be named by a tribunal of this sort.
But what a tale this Tribunal unfolded. It is a sombre catalogue of incompetence, subterfuge and failure, of warnings disregarded, a complete exposure of the lack of communication within the National Coal Board. It must seem incredible to anybody who reads this Report that Tip No. 7 on Merthyr Mountain should ever have been chosen and that it should have been tipped on for so long, when the water problems was abundantly clear, when the tailings problem was admitted and when there were so many complaints about Tip No. 7.
Complaints came from several organisations, including the Merthyr Corporation, many individuals and, in particular, Councillor Mrs. Williams, whose strong complaint in the Merthyr Planning Committee was reported in the Merthyr Express in 1964. She said:If the tip moved it could threaten the whole school.The complaints were frequent.
Let me quote but two from the Merthyr Corporation. They started in July, 1959, as we are told on page 52 of the Report. Letters from the Borough Engineer, Mr. Jones, in 1963, referred to apprehensions about the movement of slurryto the danger and detriment of people and property adjoining the site of the tips.1920 The Deputy Borough Engineer, Mr. Bradley, in 1963, wrote a number of letters which were headedDanger from coal slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas Schools.To all these complaints the National Coal Board turned a deaf ear. It went on tipping. I cannot entertain the suggestion that the Merthyr Corporation can be held responsible in any way, nor, indeed could the Tribunal. As Mr. Alun Davies, Q.C., said at the Tribunal:…perhaps the natural mistake made by the Merthyr Corporation was that it accepted the opinions of the experts of this organisation at their own valuation. Little did the Corporation realise how empty were the assurances given by their experts, but in my submission this cannot be blameworthy conduct as between responsible men.To the several complaints from the Merthyr Corporation the answer was given by the National Coal Board that experts were being used. In 1950, the Coal Board wrote to the borough engineer saying that the Board was constantly checking the position of all these tips. In fact, it blinded them with science.
Alderman Tudor, himself an important witness, who gave considerable warnings to the Coal Board, said to the Tribunal:Remember, I was a layman with limited knowledge of tips. I had raised the matter of tips in the Consultative Committee and I was compelled to accept what Mr. Wynne told me, recognising that he had far more ability than had. And I thought that he was capable enough of making a decision. If he was not capable enough of making a decision, well then, he should have called someone else in. As a layman I could not argue with him, because he could have blinded me, because he knew more of the pits and he knew more of the pit work than I did.The Coal Board blinded them all. It was deaf to all warnings, written and vocal. It was blind, also, to the visual warnings. There has been tip slips on Mynydd Merthyr, which could all have been seen by those in charge. In 1944 a rotational slip on tip 4 was followed by a flow slide; between 1947 and 1951 a rotational slip on Tip No. 5; in 1963 a rotational slide on Tip No. 7 followed by a flow slide. Between 1964 and October, 1966 there were further slipping movements on Tip No. 7. There were also the other tip slides at Tymawr and Cilfynydd, from the neighbouring valleys.
Yet something stopped these men taking action. Something stopped them 1921 concentrating on this tip about which they were constantly warned. What was it? Was it just a combination of ignorance and failure to take responsibility? Was it the pressure of other work at the pit itself and in the rest of the area? Was it the fear that, if they stopped tipping on Tip No. 7, there was very little other land to tip on and the pit itself might be in danger of closure?
The evidence of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. S. 0. Davies) reflects this question, but the Tribunal, in investigating it, did not find sufficient evidence to support it. Or was it the same attitude which any of us could have taken, an attitude which exists in the minds of those who live below a volcano and which may be epitomised in just a few words—"It will never happen"?
The Tribunal just blames the National Coal Board and says that there was an absence of tipping policy and no legislation dealing with tip safety. Although the Tribunal found blame for the disaster to rest with the Coal Board, it took a long time for the Coal Board to admit it. At the beginning, its statement gave no hint of acceptance at any level of any degree of blame for the disaster. Indeed, the Board's counsel said:The Board's view is that the disaster was due to a coincidence of a set of geological factors, each of which in itself is not exceptional but which collectively created a particularly critical geological environment".Those words were later shown to be false, for, on the 65th day of the hearing, the Tribunal heard Mr. Piggott, the Board's expert, say that the only exceptional feature about Merthyr Mountain lay in the fact that it had been used as a tipping site at all. Mr. Sheppard, the Director-General of Production of the National Coal Board, said in answer to Mr. Wien, the Board's counsel,All the geological features could have been previously appreciated".There was, in fact, a definite and continued attempt, in the view of the Tribunal, by the Coal Board to avoid responsibility.
Lord Robens' original statement and his evidence did not make things any easier. After he had been to Aberfan, Lord Robens told a reporter:It was impossible to know that there was a spring in the heart of this tip which was 1922 turning the centre of the mountain into sludge".Clearly, this was inaccurate, and it was said without technical advice. The evidence which Lord Robens gave to the Tribunal later was self-contradictory and inconsistent, so much so that counsel for the N.C.B., in his closing address, said that it had not assisted the Tribunal and asked that it be disregarded.
Lord Robens was in a difficulty. He must, like anyone connected with this matter, have been in a state of mental turmoil. He made his inaccurate statement to the television reporter before he had been able to get proper advice. But, surely, he must afterwards have known what the Coal Board's line was to be before the Tribunal, after that statement and before the Tribunal had met.
Lord Robens said in his evidence—this is recorded on page 91 of the Report —that by the time the inquiry started on 29th November he was satisfied that the causes were reasonably foreseeable. If that was so, why did the Coal Board persist in its attitude until day 65, when Mr. Piggott, the Board's expert, finally said:All the geological features could have been previously appreciated"?This is not easy to understand. It is easy, as the Tribunal said, for anyone to be guilty of hindsight. It is easy for us to criticise and to accuse with the Report before us. But it is not easy to understand Lord Robens' attitude from the time of the disaster to the end of the Tribunal. Blame for the disaster rests with the Coal Board. That is the Tribunal's first finding, and, as the Secretary of State said, certain officials of the Coal Board have been moved within the Board's organisation.
Lord Robens offered his resignation to the Minister. It was certainly the honourable thing for him to do, as head of this vast industrial empire which was blamed for the disaster by the Tribunal. The Minister has refused to accept his resignation. I ask the Minister today to say a little more about his reasons for not accepting it. The only point in the Secretary of State's speech in which I did not fully concur was when he said that the Minister had given his reasons. The copies of the letters passing between the chairman of the National Coal Board 1923 and the Minister do not give us the reasons.
In his letter to Lord Robens rejecting his resignation, the right hon. Gentleman said:Nor do I consider that the conclusions of the Tribunal are of a kind which call for your resignation.The conclusions of the Tribunal were that the Coal Board was totally responsible for the disaster. The evidence of Lord Robens was not only late, but it was found to be useless by the Coal Board's counsel, so much so that, as I have said, he asked for it to be disregarded. I cannot help saying to the Minister that I am sure he has further reasons for refusing Lord Robens' resignation, and from our side we should very much like to hear them. I repeat that we are not asking that Lord Robens should resign. We want only to be told more about the Minister's reasons.
The right hon. Gentleman may say that Lord Robens' leadership is essential to the Coal Board in the difficulties which the industry faces, and with this we could agree. It is a complicated industry. In Wales alone, just under 60,000 men are still employed in just over 70 collieries. Lord Robens has done much to restore morale within the mining industry.
I put these questions to the Minister. How much does this huge industry decentralise? How much more will it decentralise now, since the study which, we are told, has taken place? How much responsibility did the divisions take in the past? I ask this question because, in all the evidence which was brought before the Tribunal, there was one person who was not called by counsel for the Coal Board. I find it curious that Mr. Kellett, the Chairman of the South-Western Division, was not called to give evidence regarding a pit disaster which occurred within his division. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer that tonight.
§ The Minister of Power (Mr. Richard Marsh)
May I be clear on the question about Mr. Kellett which the hon. Gentleman asks? Is he asking me why no one —including the Tribunal itself—called Mr. Kellett, or merely why the Coal Board's counsel did not call him? The 1924 Tribunal could have called anyone it wished. It did not call him.
§ Mr. Gibson-Watt
The point of my question is that one would have expected counsel for the Coal Board to call the chairman of the division. I do not understand it. If there is a reason, I am very ready to accept what the Minister may say. I should like him to give us an answer on the point.
The Coal Board, like other nationalised industries, enjoys immunity from Parliamentary control. No Member of Parliament may ask Questions in the House about the administrative matters of nationalised industries. This gives the industries, as it were, an impregnability which I am not always sure is in their own interests. In this case, it was not possible for the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil to come to the House and ask the Minister concerned about the tip menace. The general public cannot understand this prohibition on Parliamentary probing. Some changes could be made. After all, Mr. Aneurin Bevan did not make that mistake with the National Health Service when he introduced it. Would it not be possible for this matter to be considered by the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries?
Many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, and, therefore, I want only shortly to say a word about the repair work which has taken place on the Aberfan complex in draining, terracing and reseeding Tip No. 7. As far as one can judge, this has been well done, and when one goes up the valley one, sees the freshly seeded grass. The Under-Secretary of State spoke the other day of the £1 million which is to be spent by the Coal Board in reshaping the tips on Merthyr Mountain, with reseeding and planting of fair-sized trees. It remains to be seen whether this will be adequate. Fair-sized trees do not grow easily, particularly in coal tips, and the job should be done by experts.
I have no doubt that it will be, but it is not clear that Tips Nos. 4 and 5 are to be included in the landscaping. The Minister has the advantage of me, for he has seen the model and I have not. But we cannot accept any excuse that Tip No. 5 is still burning and, therefore, cannot be removed. That should be made very plain to those who are clearing up that part of Merthyr Mountain. It was stated 1925 in the Tribunal, by one of the Coal Board experts, thatOne may conclude that No. 5 has been standing and is standing at a very low factor of safety.Therefore, we shall need a good deal of convincing that adequate work is being done.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, there has been a good deal of Press and television coverage of the whole affair. Whatever people's reactions to some of it may have been, it should at least remind every one of us of the debt the country as a whole owes to the mining communities and the country's responsibility to see that the existing tips are safe, and that the lives of those living in the valleys shall not only be safer but shall be made less drab by reshaping, reseeding and re-afforestation.
It is only when one lives there or goes there that one realises that in South Wales there are not hundreds but thousands of coal tips. The real difficulty here, unlike other coal-mining areas, is that there is practically nowhere to put the tips except on the slope at the side of the valley. It is immaterial whether the slipping tip is now the property of the Coal Board or not. A number of small though potentially dangerous slips have taken place in the past few months, and throughout periods of heavy rain, such as we had recently, there is a great deal of anxiety about them.
The Secretary of State has announced that grants of between 85 and 95 per cent. will be available to local authorities under the 1966 Industrial Development Act. I do not believe that that goes quite far enough. Any local authority which is tackling a scheme of any size—say, of £250,000—and which is asked to provide 10 per cent. of the money to do the repairing and reshaping will have to find a large amount from the local ratepayers. It will probably be dealing with a coal tip that was put there some years ago and in many cases might be just a relic of a bygone economic age. Therefore, I hope that the Government will reconsider this and perhaps be even more generous to the local authorities than they have been so far.
I have no doubt that the disaster at Aberfan has taught a terrible lesson to the Coal Board, and no doubt it has made certain reorganisations. But the disaster has also brought home to us the lesson 1926 that there are many tips that need remedial action in order to relieve anxiety.
I do not wish to say anything in detail about the disaster fund. When he winds up, will the Minister tell us how the fund, totalling nearly £2 million, has been administered, and what is the up-to-date position?
I have put a number of questions to the Minister. First, will he give us the reasons why he did not accept Lord Roben's resignation? Second, will he say why the Chairman of the South Western Division did not give evidence at the Tribunal? Third, will he consult his colleagues about changing the rules which prevent hon. Members from asking Questions about nationalised industries in the House? Fourth, will he ensure that the Coal Board adequately reshapes the tips at Aberfan? Fifth, will the Government be more generous to local authorities? Finally, will he tell us more about the disaster fund?
Having put those questions to the Minister, I conclude by saying to all who have suffered at Aberfan. "We wish you strength and faith to overcome your grief."
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr Tydvil)
The House will probably understand why the day of this debate has been my most unhappy day in the very long years I have been a Member. It is not merely because the disaster took place in my constituency; it took place among men, women and even children whom I knew and know.
We hope that with the debate and the Report and recommendations of the Tribunal we shall put an end to disasters of the kind which occurred at Aberfan. It is not an easy job, but it must be done.
It is not my intention to add to the sorrows of my neighbours. A number of them are here today and they should leave the House with a conviction that their loss has not entirely been in vain, and that the House will take steps, as it can, to prevent such tragedies in the future. As an ex-miner, and a mining engineer, I have made a life-long study of mining. I have something to say about the potential dangers of similar tragedies that still exist, particularly in the South Wales coal field. On the whole, the coal 1927 seams are far below the surface and the physical topography of the Wales coal field adds immensely to the dangers of the tipping that has been going on. The National Coal Board inherited the practices of the long years before it had responsibility for the mines of this country.
When I was a young coal miner, working in a colliery immediately to the west of where this disaster occurred, I came up from the coal shaft one Monday afternoon—and Monday was a short day in the collieries—to the beautiful sunshine, and I saw on the mountainside, which must have been beautiful, too, at one time, rubbish and debris being tipped from the coal mine. Standing near me on my left was the general manager, a man for whom I had great respect. Indeed, he started many of us as students of mining and of science in coal mining. I turned to him—his name, like mine, was Davies—and I asked, "Mr. Davies, is not that an absolute scandal, bringing all this rubbish from underground and tipping it on the hillside, instead of scientifically stowing it underground and thus perhaps preventing in the future widespread subsidence in the coal field?" He was a great mining engineer. His answer was typical of those days. He said, "Stephen, let me tell you, confidentially, that I have to bring it out because it is cheaper to haul it up the shaft and tip it on the hillside". Needless to say, I never reported that story while that first-class man held a responsibility under the old dispensation. He was extremely kind to the youngsters in the industry.
The Coal Board has inherited a beastly and unscientific tradition. It accepted what had been done in the old days. May I deal with the fact that Members of the House have no power to question anything done by the Coal Board which we feel ought to be questioned? I made that point while the Bill nationalising the industry was being passed through the House. In general I supported it, but there was one part of it which I did not like, and that was that we were lifting the industry out of the control of the House and vesting it in a number of unelected and unrepresentative men. I used that expression at the time, and I also pointed out that if a disaster happened in any of the collieries in my 1928 constituency and hundreds of lives were lost, neither I nor any other hon. Member would have the right to put a Question to the Minister, except by the grace of Mr. Speaker or his Deputy. We should have no such right unless it were conceded to us—and I say that with no disrespect to the Chair.
Some of us have spoken a lot about tipping during our days. I have mentioned the topography of these valleys in South Wales and the dangers of subsidence. Time is passing and subsidence is getting a bigger danger than ever. How are we to obviate that danger? We must get these tips cleared. There is no alternative.
We must be under no illusion that the Aberfan tips have been made safe by today. They have not been made safe. There are two tips right at the top of the old tip, to be seen glaring at us every day, full of threat. They might come down and cover some part of the village again. The Aberfan people insist —and I insist with them—that what is left of those tips must be removed. I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales will be with us on this matter.
§ Mr. Marsh
My hon. Friend has made an incredibly serious statement. As far as I am concerned, there is no foundation whatsoever for his suggestion that the tip at Aberfan still represents a danger to the village. Before I wind up the debate I will make further inquiries, but I thought that this was such a serious statement that I should intervene. I will make further inquiries and if what my hon. Friend says is not the case, I hope that he will be prepared to withdraw it.
§ Mr. Davies
I hope that my right hon. Friend will take it from coal miners, from those of us who live there, and I have lived there for nearly 50 years, and whose industrial preoccupation is still coal mining, that it is a danger. I should not like this to boomerang on my right hon. Friend after the statement which he has made. I repeat that it is a danger, an obvious danger. I am not panicking over this, although I can forgive certain people who may get a little panicky about it. My right hon. Friend must abandon his opinion, because we had assurances of that kind over and over again before 1929 the disaster happened. We were told, "Everything is all right and perfectly safe". I remind my right hon. Friend of those two tips at the very top, almost on the ridge of the hill between us in the valley and the west. I will tell him that if there is subsidence in that valley and that hillside, and if a creep or tremor runs up that hillside and sets those tips moving again, there could be very serious danger. My right hon. Friend must take advice on this from those who know something about coal mining and not be as ready to accept the advice of those who have misled from the very beginning.
I feel that it was rather unfortunate that at the very beginning of this great trouble the Attorney-General said that no prosecution would be engaged in whoever might be found responsible. That was a most unfortunate expression on his part. People have been found blameworthy and we say, consequently, guilty. The only thing that might mitigate that blame in the least is what I have already said—that they inherited traditions from the past when nothing but profit mattered. They carried on that tradition and, as a result, this disaster happened and others might again happen.
The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) referred to the actions of the Press. I must say that, on the whole, the Press has been pretty good, bur there have been exceptions—cold-blooded, cheap, journalese exceptions, some in this country and some abroad. I shall not reproduce the horrible statements made in certain organs of the British Press, statements wholly unrelated to the feelings and expressions of those who suffered and are still suffering from the disaster. But I will quote to the House the filthiest classic of all. I have a photostat copy of the article. It is headedAftermath of Aberfan Tragedy.It declares:Jealous parents"—can anyone here imagine anything more cruelly vicious and untruthful?Jealous parents of 116 dead kids"—that is not my word—vow to kill a child because he is alive.A whole page is given to this. It goes even further. It gives the name of a young woman of Aberfan and the name of her son. I know this family extremely 1930 well. With this write-up, the paper presented what was supposed to be a picture of mother and son. But in the picture the mother looks at least between 12 and 14 stone. The lady referred to, however, is hardly more than half that weight. I shall not upset the House by going into further detail but I think that this article has reached the limit of unscrupulous, conscienceless and cruel journalism.
I am pleased at least to say that that article was not printed in this country. It is from a greatly advertised American periodical called Midnight.
I have referred to the statement made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. That statement has not been accepted kindly by the people of Aberfan, and I can quite understand why. It is very difficult for any person to see why those adjudged guilty should not be made to make some amends for what they have been accused of doing. My right hon. and learned Friend's statement at the outset was a mistake. It should be left to the courts to decide whether the Coal Board merely accepted the inherited traditions of the past without question. We in this House were not given the right to question anything that the Coal Board did. This House should nevertheless hold the Coal Board responsible and make it face the consequences of what it has done.
I know that I have been wandering in my speech but I am sure that I need not apologise to the House. This is the most unhappy time in my long service in this House. I hope that, in any case, the House will agree with me that these tips must be removed and that those still left in Aberfan must be removed at once.
The Aberfan tips are still a danger. I shall accept no statement to the contrary. I have lived in these valleys all my life and I know something about the effects of subsidence and the springs of water oozing from our hillsides We should not hesitate to finish the job at Atierfan and carry on with the job elsewhere, particularly, as I have said, in South Wales, where the physical topography adds to the dangers which already exist.
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ Colonel C. G. Lancaster (South Fylde)
I do not intend to comment on the speech of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil 1931 (Mr. S. O. Davies) because I have a number of things to say and I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak. A fortnight ago the Annual Report on accidents at mines was published. It is a very encouraging Report. Last year, deaths from accidents totalled 160—the lowest figure ever. But Mr. Stephenson, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, said that in view of advances in engineering technique applied in recent years, we should not be complacent about that.
The Aberfan disaster was not reportable under the Mines and Quarries Act, 1954. Nevertheless, Mr. Stephenson says that the disaster will have a world-wide impact. I was abroad when it occurred, visiting the Trucial States. Immediately on my return, I happened to have a conversation in the Lobby with the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Finch), who has given me permission to refer to it.
The hon. Gentleman asked me what I thought and I said that I knew no more about it than what I had read in the newspapers abroad. He inquired what my opinion was of the possible cause of the disaster and I replied, "I fancy that you will find that it was a trickle of water". I shall refer to that later.
In its first-class Report, the Tribunal puts the cause of the disaster on a breakdown in communications both horizontal and vertical. I suggest another dimension —the psychological. It was endemic in the formation of the National Coal Board, which was hurriedly put together in 1947, that it should take on an over-centralised aspect. I am certain that if the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) were here he would be the first to say that, with the passage of time, it needs seriously overhauling.
Unfortunately, the only important inquiry, the Fleck inquiry, did nothing to bring about any decentralisation. Indeed, the Board solidified something which was already too over centralised. The result has been that, progressively, all decisions have come to be made at Hobart House.
Hobart House is responsible for every aspect of mining, including the administration of coal production. Thus, there has arisen a tendency for the men in the regions to look to Hobart House for decisions in all sorts of directions, be they the shape of shafts or the use of 1932 props at the coal face. There was, there-for a tendency not to give the soil tips the attention that the problem deserved.
It is true that there were no regulations about coal tips before Nationalisation, but in the East Midlands there was a common practice, which I believe was fairly general throughout the coal industry—I do not think that we were any more enlightened than anybody elsewhere the control of tips was a regular feature of the day's work. Soil tips are a necessary evil. For every ton brought out of a pit almost a quarter of that weight goes on to the coal tip. It is the difference between the run of mine coal and saleable output. It was necessary to take considerable precautions to settle on a piece of land which was not unduly soft or broken ground and had no previous encroachments and to have very careful regard to the type of debris being tipped.
As an example, a change-over from dry slag to effluent, or what is now called tailings, could have a definite effect on the angle of repose. Therefore, the matter had to be watched very carefully and, above all, it was against all tradition to site a tip either on a spring or in the vicinity of a stream.
There was normally a gang of men working on the tip and they were responsible for whatever mechanical devices were being employed. Over that gang was a man called a chargehand and among his various duties were two very important ones. One was to report any unusual movement of the tip, and certainly he had to report any signs of water emerging from the base of the tip. He made his report either to the surface manager or, in a smaller pit, to the surface foreman who in his turn reported it to the colliery manager. The colliery manager went up every three or four weeks and had a good look at the tip, decided where the tipping for the next period would occur, and drew the charge-hand's attention to any aspect of the tip which was giving him cause for concern.
These precautions were carried out in the East Midlands not because life was at stake—at least we hoped not—but because undue spreading of the tip involved compensation to farmers for destroyed buildings and the like in the vicinity.
1933 In South Wales, the need for precautions on the sides of hills with a 60 in. rainfall is all the greater. It would be presumption on my part to talk about South Wales, but it so happens that a few years after nationalisation two of my original staff went there. One was chairman of the South Wales district and the other was the chief mechanical officer. I used to go down and talk to them, so, although I never talked about tips, I have some familiarity with what went on down there.
That is all I have to say about tips in general. As has been said, it is essential that we take a fresh look at these matters and do everything possible to rectify this appalling situation, more particularly in South Wales.
I come now to Lord Robens' part. Lord Robens has been a very distinguished Chairman of the National Coal Board. He has been there since 1961 and has proved himself a supreme salesman and a doughty fighter on behalf of the coal mining industry. I think that his greatest contribution was restoring the morale of the industry after the setback from a seller's to a buyer's market after the year 1958. He restored confidence to the industry. Moreover, as regards pits being closed and redundancy, he has acted with a great sense of imagination and charity.
I have had a number of discussions with Lord Robens and I have accompanied him up and down the coalfields visiting pits and the like. He is a friend of mine. Therefore, what I have to say is the more invidious.
I consider, first, that his public image has been immensely spoiled by this tragedy. He should have gone down there on the first day. Years ago, when I was first learning something about coal mining—I had no executive position—I went away on a Saturday and the colliery manager rang me that night and said that there had been an over-wind in the shaft, two men had been killed, and I must come back straight away. He was a wise old man. He said. "You must be here because you are the boss class."Today, Lord Robens and the people around him are the boss class, and they should have been there if for no other purpose than showing their sympathy at that moment with the bereaved.
1934 The second thing I must say about him is that he was most unwise to make any comment about the cause or otherwise of the tragedy. He is wholly untechnical. He was bound to make mistakes, and he did so. He would have been much wiser to have said nothing about it.
Thirdly, and most important, he should have gone to the Tribunal when it was set up and should have said not only, "I will put all the resources of my organisation at the disposal of the Tribunal", but," I have two or possibly three men I would like to nominate whose evidence you should take. It is up to you, the Tribunal, to call whom you wish, but I have two or three men I would like particularly that you should call. I think that they can give you great help."The Tribunal, in its early days, said, and said rightly, that it wanted no delay in its proceedings, it wanted no evidence which in any way would mislead it, and it wanted a ready acknowledgment of mistakes that there had been.
There are three men I have in mind. One has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt), Mr. Kellett, the Chairman of the South-West District. I have met him. He is a man of high reputation and very well respected. Many chairmen happen to be administrative men, but he is a technical man. He was the man responsible for that district and he should have been one of the men to give evidence.
The second man who I suggest should have been called at the earliest moment is Mr. Harry Collins, who was the Director of Production and a Board Member. Mr. Sheppard, who was called, was not a Board member. Mr. Harry Collins is a man of great experience who has held a number of very high posts. If the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) were here he would confirm that when Mr. Collins was in charge of our coal production in Germany after the war he gained the confidence of the German coal mining industry, which is not an easy thing to do. He gained it because he was a man of great competence himself and they responded to him. I went to Essen on two occasions to spend some little while with him and I also was most impressed with the reputation that he gained for himself.
If an additional witness was required the Deputy Chairman of the Coal Board, 1935 Sir Humphrey Brown, could have been called. He gained his reputation originally in the old Manchester collieries as a planner. He made a good name for himself when he was Chairman of the West Midlands Division and he is the foremost technician on the Coal Board.
What, in fact, happened? Mr. Sheppard became the spokesman for the Coal Board. It is not for me to question Mr. Sheppard's competence, but I cannot feel that he can look back on his evidence with any feeling of satisfaction whatever. After all, the Chief Inspector of Mines in the South-West Area said of his evidence that it was "astonishing". Additionally to that, the Tribunal said that nothing it had heard in evidence at Aber-fan in any way confirmed a single syllable of the minute of the statement of the Coal Board committee set up by Mr. Sheppard.
None of the stipulations which the tribunal made—that there should be no delay, that there should be no attempt to confuse the issue and that there should be a ready acceptance of responsibility—was met either by Mr. Sheppard or, I am sorry to say, by Lord Robens in his evidence. Indeed, as we have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford, counsel for the Coal Board had to ask the Tribunal to ignore Lord Roben's contribution to the Tribunal's considerations as being of no value.
Can anybody imagine that either Mr. Kellett or Mr. Collins would agree to that approach? The Coal Board put forward a statement denying blame for what had occurred at any level. These two men would not have lent their names to such a statement. These two men would not have delayed proceedings or mystified the Tribunal, and these two men would have been the first to acknowledge what had gone wrong, because they would have been only too clear about what had gone wrong.
It has been suggested that this was a very complex geological problem; it was not. Tips are not complex geological problems and advice about the movement of earth and the science of soil mechanics was available from any private engineering firm. If any hon. Member would like to see something comparable to Aberfan he can do so within five miles of Parliament at Dawson Hill, in South-East 1936 Camberwell, where very much the same thing has happened. The corporation had been tipping rubbish for a generation; there was water and about 40 houses were swept away, luckily with no loss of life, and three streets have been at risk at the bottom of the hill. In the light of what had happened at Aberfan, Southwark Council very sensibly called in a geological concern—and I must declare an interest, because I have worked with that concern for the last 20 years—and the council has put the matter right in a reasonably short time.
However, in the Press and elsewhere it has been suggested that there were imponderables and the like about the tip at Aberfan. There are not such things about tips, which do not represent a complicated geological problem. They represent a problem which the average colliery manager can perfectly well handle and in which he is perfectly well versed.
I join with my hon. Friend in saying that we must ask the Minister to give us the reasons why Mr. Kellett and Mr. Collins were not called. I am sure that the Minister has read the typescript of the evidence and must be appalled by the evidence put forward by Mr. Sheppard and Lord Robens. I do not think that either wilfully set out to mislead the Tribunal and I am sure that they are both honourable men. It was because of the standard of their competence, because they were second-class men in the sense of their technical or general abilities. They went there on behalf of the Coal Board and yet the Tribunal had firmly put responsibility not on the lower or middle echelons of men whom eventually it condemned in its final report, but squarely on the Coal Board, and it was up to the Coal Board to give every assistance it could and to send its best men. It did not do so.
I find myself in the position of not agreeing with my hon. Friend. Lord Robens has done a fine job. He has served the State in a number of distinguished positions. He did the honourable thing by resigning. I feel that the Minister should not have asked him to take back his resignation. I know that the right hon. Gentleman may produce all sorts of reasons, but the underlying position still remains that he ought not 1937 to have asked him to take back his resignation.
Aberfan will not be quickly forgotten I can assure the Minister that the Tribunal's Reports will have been read in Pennsylvania, in Lens, in Brussels, in the Ruhr and in the Donbas. In a strange way the mining world is quite small and follows what happens up and down the mining world very closely. Unless we do what I have suggested, it will be said that we have dropped our standards. For me this is a sad day, because my heart is in the coal industry, but this is something which we shall not forget for many a long day.
§ 5.57 p.m.
§ Mr. James Griffiths (Llannelly)
I want to try to guide what I have to say by two thoughts. First, I do not want to say anything which in any way will add to the burden of the community at Aberfan which has borne a terrible cross. I hope that it can now be left to recover and we must do everything within human power to help it—and God knows that that is very little. Now that it is facing the grim future and the tremendous task of trying to rebuild lives, it is entitled to respect and privacy. Secondly, we must make sure that there is never another Aberfan anywhere in our country.
Before making some suggestions, I want to deal with what has been said by the hon. and gallant Member for South Fylde (Colonel Lancaster). The Tribunal has condemned the National Coal Board and I accept that condemnation. The Tribunal has named certain persons and condemned them, and I accept that, too. I also accept the Tribunal's view that they must be judged in their setting and in their generations by everyone, including us—do not let us escape our responsibility for tip stability and tip safety.
However, I hope that the hon. and gallant Member will accept the Tribunal's condemnation of the Powell Duffryn Company, which started the tip. In paragraph 70 the Tribunal report says:An illustration of the pre-nationalisation attitude towards tips is provided by considering the behaviour of the Powell Duffryn Company in relation to tips upon Merthyr Mountain itself. Notwithstanding the gigantic slide at Cilfynydd in 1939 … no system regarding tip stability was ever devised or implemented. True, someone prepared a memorandum entitled 'The Sliding of Colliery 1938 Rubbish Tips' (which was to be revived, amended and issued over a quarter of a century later) but what its original circulation was is unknown and its contents seem to have been largely ignored. Its advice that tips on such slopes as existed in Aberfan should not exceed twenty feet in height was ignored …So it goes on. That illustrates the approach of private enterprise to this problem before nationalisation.
We should not be doing the best service that we can do to Aberfan, the industry or the country if we start with the National Coal Board. I wrote privately to Lord Robens—I did not get a Press note. I wrote privately to him when he had offered his resignation. I sent him a very simple message which I can repeat here. It said:I hope you will not resign. The industry needs you now and will need you in the future.Not that Lord Robens or anyone else always behaves perfectly. I agree with some of the criticism made by the hon. Member for South Fylde. It was very unfortunate that there should have been that interview on television straight away.
We are all of us living in a blaze of publicity. Men who are in public positions, Lord Robens in this case, Ministers in other cases, and Members of Parliament, very often in the midst of tragedies and disasters of this kind are asked straight away, without any prior notice, to make statements. I know that I am old, perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I want to protest about this because people very often are inclined to make snap statements under great stress or emotion, in difficult circumstances and conditions. I beg my friends in the Press and television to appreciate this. Any of us can slip up if we are suddenly confronted with a "mike" and asked what we think about certain things.
This industry of ours, it is mine as well as the hon. Member's, is facing very difficult problems.
§ Colonel Lancaster
Would the right hon. Gentleman admit that it took 60 days before Lord Robens conceded that he had made an inaccurate remark? If he had apologised as soon as he knew, this would not have occurred. It took him 60 days to concede it.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I accept the condemnation of the Coal Board. I have said all 1939 that I want to say about Lord Robens and I want to go on to speak for myself—to speak for all of us, because this House is responsible for the inspection, for the legislation, and it is a responsibility that we cannot put on the Coal Board or anyone else. It is ours.
In the mining industry, with all our legislation and all our thinking, there has been collective neglect of tips and tip stability. It is understandable. I am a son of the valley. It is not wilful neglect, but neglect born of familiarity and complacency. We have grown up with these tips, our homes were built under their shadow, we played on them as children. We dug coal from them during strikes, we cursed them and put up with them. And very seldom, let me confess this anyhow, did we think of them as dangerous.
We now accept that every tip has potential danger. Which of us thought of that before Aberfan? Some tips were thought likely to be potentially dangerous. Looking at the history of tips, in 1938 a Royal Commission on Safety in Mines, the last important and thorough, comprehensive investigation of colliery safety was published. It was a report of 500 words about the problems of safety in mines and what needed to be done. There was not a single word about tips.
In 1944 we had perhaps the most well-informed report upon the organisation of the industry in the future. At that time it had not been decided whether there was to be nationalisation, because it was not known what Government there would be. It was a technical report, which we called the Reid Report, headed by Sir Charles Reid, as we knew him, later Lord Reid. I am sure that hon. Gentlemen would agree that he was one of the most competent, experienced and highly responsible mining engineers in the country. But there was not one word about tips in the report. In 1954, after hours of discussion in Committee and in the House, we introduced the 1954 Mines and Quarries Act. Was any consideration given to tips?
The hon. Member has referred to the report of the Chief Inspector of Mines to the Minister of Power. Here is the inspector reporting on safety in the mines to the Minister and therefore to the House. He says: 1940In accordance with Section 144 of the Mines and Quarries Act, 1954, I have the honour to submit my Report on the inspection of mines and quarries during 1966.Then he goes on to say:Though not reportable under the Act with which this Report is primarily concerned, I feel compelled to refer to the disaster … at Aberfan …It was not reportable. If it had not been for this Tribunal established by the Secretary of State we would have had no document before us at all about Aberfan, no report from the Inspector of Mines.
The Report makes quite clear that the Qualification Board, which lays down the qualifications for future officers in the coal-mining industry, did not have tips on its syllabus. The Inspector of Mines made clear that the instructions he had from my right hon. Friend's Department contained no reference to tips. It is the easiest thing in the world to find scapegoats. I have said what I wanted to say about Alf Robens and the Coal Board and those individuals, who I condemn and who were quite rightly condemned.
The first thing that we must do is to bring tipping within mining legislation in the fullest possible terms. I believe that there will be some announcement about a national consultative committee to be set up to deal with tips, in accordance with the Report's recommendations. I hope that it is some kind of outside body which we can reach. I hope that powers and responsibilities will be spelled out in my right hon. Friend's new legislation and that it will be brought within the ambit of inspection.
Secondly, I deal with the question of Parliamentary time. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt)—and may I say how much I appreciated the tone and spirit of the two Front Bench speeches; I pay tribute to both of them—suggested that we should have Parliamentary Questions. There is a convention that we cannot ask Questions about the day-to-day administration of a nationalised industry, but it is news to me—I may be wrong—that we cannot ask questions about safety in the mines. We do not want to give the impression outside that we are even more powerless than we are. I have never heard Mr. Speaker refuse a Private Notice Question about any disaster.
§ Mr. Gibson-Watt
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and for what he said a few moments ago. There is a difference between the Private Notice Question and the Parliamentary Question. If there is a disaster of any kind, Mr. Speaker always gives the chance to put a Private Notice Question. My point is that I doubt whether it is possible to put a Parliamentary Question about something worrying an hon. Member before a disaster takes place.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I will leave that point.
When I first became a Member, it was the custom to set apart one day each year for a full day's debate on the report of the Inspector of Mines and Quarries. We have not had such a debate for a long time. The House is now overwhelmed with business. We have a Royal Commission on the trade unions. Investigations are made into why so much time is lost by strikes. I do not mind —I confess that I have caused some myself. Why not have an inquiry made into the amount of time which is lost by preventable accidents? How much time do we give to that matter?
We now have more knowledge and information than ever before coming from the Ministry of Labour, factory inspectors, the Ministry of Social Security, and now the new industrial injuries scheme about accidents. I therefore suggest that a specialist committee of the House should be set up to receive these reports on safety and problems connected with it, because I am sure that that is the best way in which the House can exercise its influence in and control over problems of this kind. By all means let there be freedom for Questions, but, frankly, I do not think that that would be any good. The Minister would be reached only once in live weeks.
One of the greatest condemnations in the Report concerns the breakdown of communications in the Coal Board. That did not begin with the setting up of the Board. If I make any complaint against the Board, it is that in 1947 it took over in South Wales, holus-bolus, the whole of the organisation of the Powell Duffryn Company as it then existed. As an old coal miner—perhaps very few people will agree with me—I was against that system. I saw it working. Before the National Coal Board took over in 1947, everyone 1942 was responsible to the colliery manager. The employers were tough in those days. They tried to destroy my union. But I say this for them: they had a reputation in South Wales of being among the best when it came to safety.
The Coal Board inherited this organisation. Then somebody had the bright idea, when reorganisation of the structure of the industry was being discussed, of putting in Fleck, who knew nothing about coal mining. The result is that we have officials with imprecise definition of delegation, with blurred responsibility and a lot of passing the buck. Whether it be Powell Duffryn, or the company of the hon. and gallant Member for South Fylde —because it had some of it, too—or anyone else, the result has been the erosion of the authority and prestige of the colliery manager. He became a messenger. I hope that the National Coal Board, in its reorganisation, will bring back some of the authority and prestige of the colliery manager.
One of the questions which is implicit all the time is: to what extent is it true that the doubts which some people might have had about Aberfan or any other tip were suppressed by the fear of pit closures? I shall not pronounce to what extent people in Aberfan and Merthyr Vale, which I know fairly well, suppressed doubts because of the fear of the loss of livelihood of people in the community. What I can say is that economic pressures and safety do not go well together.
Gresford should never have happened, and it would never have happened but for economic pressure—in this case, pressure on the men. Recently, when I was Secretary of State for Wales, I passed through Gresford. Travelling with me was an old colliery colleague from Wrexham. We passed through the lovely village and lovely church. As we passed the colliery, we gave a thought—a silent thought—to the 240 men buried in that pit. It so happens that a large number of them, driven by poverty, broke the Coal Mines Act and worked a "double-up", because they could not afford to lose a shift in order to attend the function which they wanted to attend on Saturday. My friend said to me, "Many of them got their pay and then went down the pit to work the second shift in succession. There are very few pay packets in that old Gresford pit with more than £2 in them".
1943 Many of us are under very great pressure, as a result of threats of pit closures, to lead deputations. This old industry faces a very difficult future and there must be very big adjustments I know that perfectly well. We are living in a new age. I want to say this to my right hon. Friend and hon. Friends in the Government, because it concerns more than the Minister of Power. This is not an industry which should be subject, even in transition, to pressure which drives anyone—manager, workman, or whoever it may be—to neglect safety. That is one of the things which I hope we shall all join in saying to the Government and to the country. We must be willing to pay a price for coal which will enable these men to work with dignity and not to be subjected to economic pressures which might drive them—because they are human—to neglect safety precautions.
I hope that this evening we shall take steps to ensure that what the Minister has proposed, and what I understand the Minister of Power will propose later, is undertaken by the Government, at every level, to remove these pits. I hope that we shall see that the House of Commons plays its full part in this work and that we shall not just put the responsibility on to someone else.
I was glad to hear what the Secretary of State said about the steps which have been taken. As his predecessor I pay my tribute to him for the dignified way in which he has conducted himself throughout this tragedy. That is my view and the view of my colleagues. I should love to see the day when all these tips had gone. It will cost money. I do not want to introduce any bitterness, but I wish that we had thought of deducting the cost of removing these tips from the money that we paid on nationalisation. Let the nation accept this responsibility fully and let us do whatever is necessary to make all the tips safe. I should like to think that even in my lifetime I shall see many of them removed so that I, too, am able to say. "How green is my valley".
§ 6.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)
I am sere that the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. James Griffiths) will forgive me if I do not follow him immedi- 1944 ately in what he said, but I appreciate his great feeings for the coal industry which nurtured him and his great anxiety for the future of the industry. I commend the Secretary of State and his Department on their immediate reaction to the news of the disaster. It was the worst disaster in the Principality which I remember in my mature life. We were stunned by it. In the sombre story that has been revealed in the Report which we are discussing there is very little that is creditable, but there is a great deal of credit in the reaction of the Government and the country to the news of the disaster.
The right hon. Gentleman said that it was not part of our duty to seek scapegoats. He is right to the extent that we should not seek to put blame where blame does not lie. It is easy, with hindsight, to suggest that some people should have done some things which they did not do. At the same time, it was the unwelcome task of the Tribunal to investigate the causes of this terrible disaster, and it is our unwelcome task to draw the conclusions which we need to draw from the evidence which they sifted and to make sure that there is no possibility of this kind of tragedy happening again.
The right hon. Gentleman—I understand the emotional reason for this—contrasted the National Coal Board with Powell Duffryn. He was not the only hon. Member to say that the Coal Board inherited the system. To a great extent they did. But I am sure that right hon. Gentlemen will agree that, although that may be mitigation, it is no excuse.
It is easy to misinterpret criticisms which may be made as though they were an attack on the principle of a publicly-owned industry. That is not the case. Most people are convinced that there must be publicly-owned industry and privately-owned industry. But we are, or should be concerned with the way in which a publicly-owned industry is run and how its running could be improved.
I have nothing like the experience in this matter that the right hon. Gentleman has, but I know something about coal mines as I have had reason to be involved for the National Coal Board on many occasions and I have been underground often. The right hon. Gentleman was absolutely right in a point to which I shall come back later—the great need to 1945 give the colliery manager more responsibility. Nothing has injured the coal industry more than the erosion of the responsibility of the colliery manager, not only in respect of safety but in respect of economic matters, too.
Sir Edmund Davies, Lord Justice of Appeal, who conducted the inquiry, had inestimable advantages. There was his background and his unrivalled knowledge, for a lawyer, of both sides of the industry. He led me many times on behalf of the National Coal Board in one part of the country and then appeared very often for the National Union of Mineworkers in another part of the country. As I say, for a lawyer he had unrivalled knowledge, and it was an inspired move of the Secretary of State to appoint him to Chair the inquiry.
The Report is one of the most disturbing documents that I have ever read. The conclusion is devastating. It was the unanimous view of the Tribunal that this great tragedy could and should have been prevented, and the responsibility fell fairly and squarely on the great public body, the National Coal Board. Throughout the Report one sees—from top to bottom—a particular and sustained attitude of the Coal Board. I say this with great regret: until there was a relentless exposure of it in cross-examination, an exposure which made their position untenable, the whole tenor of the approach was, "How do we avoid responsibility for this?" The Tribunal found throughout the evidence a disturbing lack of policy on tip safety. To a great extent we are all to blame for this. The point is well made that in the last Report on Safety in Mines there is no mention of tip safety at all. But there is in the Tribunal's Report also abundant findings of a high degree of administrative slackness, a patent disregard of orders and other matters of great indiscipline which sorely affected the safety of the inhabitants of Aberfan.
It poses the vital question: where does responsibility lie in a publicly-owned industry? It is a matter which will concern us equally on all sides of the House, because a fair question to ask is: who decided the policy of the Coal Board after the tragedy occurred? Who decided the attitude which it would adopt at the Tribunal? Was the decision taken at the top? Counsel's opinion must have been taken. Was it accepted? What discussion 1946 was there about the expert evidence which was obtained? All these matters are of the greatest possible concern to the House, and not only to the victims of the tragedy but to the public at large.
In the Report one reads of the concern of.the local inhabitants. I understand that Councillor Mrs. Williams, referred to in the Report, is dead, but her apprehension of the tip stands out like a beacon—as an ordinary citizen who, in 1964, saw that this disaster could happen. There are references to other complaints and to apprehensions and to the way in which they were treated by the Coal Board. It is well that I should quote from the Report at this stage—from page 31, paragraph 60:Those who expressed their fears regarding the stability of the disaster tip were brushed aside by National Coal Board officials.Is this the way in which we want a nationalised body to be run? On page 34 we read that in 1950… a National Coal Board official blandly assured the Merthyr Tydvil Borough Council, We are constantly checking the position of all these tips '.That statement was untrue—patently untrue. It was found by the Tribunal to be untrue.
After the disaster the Secretary of State for Wales gave an Answer in the House on 24th October which is quoted on page 34 of the Report:Only eighty tips are at present in use, but the Coal Board has a regular inspection of all tips on its land, whether these tips are in use or not."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th October, 1966; Vol. 734, c. 646.]The right hon. Gentleman gave the Answer to the House in good faith, no doubt on instructions given to him by the Coal Board, and that statement was untrue. Lord Robens admitted, in reply to Mr. Brian Gibbens, Q.C., counsel for the National Union of Mineworkers, that inspections were inadequate.
How does it come about that in a public body this kind of thing can happen, and happen repeatedly? In the opening statement of the Coal Board we had the suggestion that the tragedy was due to matters which were outside the Board's control, due to a coincidence of geological factors, none of them, I think it was suggested, critical in itself, but collectively creating a particularly critical geological environment. As has already been 1947 pointed out, this statement was a nonsense, and it must have been known by the Coal Board, from its collective wisdom, to have been a nonsense.
Then we had the article in the Sunday Times of 26th February, 1967, after the Tribunal had been sitting for 48 days. It was obviously, in many respects, an inspired article, because it set out the Coal Board's case, and in the third sentence it said:The disastrous slide of the waste tip which buried alive 144 people was unforeseeable. The root cause was a coincidence of geological factors each of which in itself was not exceptional.So, after 48 days of the sittings of the Tribunal, this was still what the Coal Board was putting forward.
Reference has already been made by previous speakers to the evidence of Mr. Sheppard before the Tribunal. It was not very creditable evidence. It is difficult for the public, though, to understand, his present eminence. He was not at a time of the hearing a member of the Board, but he now is. On page 86 the Tribunal refers to a statement that he made in London after its twentieth sitting, when he repeated the case of the Board and said:The results of the investigations into the disaster and evidence so far given had exposed problems relating to geology, soil mechanics and other factors which had not previously been widely appreciated. It was clear, as the result of detailed enquiries which had been carried out by Divisions, that conditions which had led to the disaster were rare.The Tribunal adds this comment:Nothing that the Tribunal heard or read throughout its 76 days of sittings tended even remotely to support such a conclusion.How does a man in his responsible position and since promoted come to make this statement? Either he was being deliberately misleading or he is totally incompetent. These are very disturbing matters.
The first admission of any liability on the part of the Board was on day 74. How does it come about that this delay was allowed to happen? We are told that Lord Robens is a very fine administrator, that he is a fine salesman. I believe that I was the first in the country, certainly the first Member of this House, to suggest that he should resign; and I am absolulutely convinced that he should 1948 have resigned and that the Minister of Power should have accepted his resignation. Many people in lower positions in this industry have been named in this Report and there is a general finding that the Board was extremely slack.
How does it come about that people do disregard orders, that there was this constant fobbing-off of legitimate complaints? We are all of us, as Members of Parliament, accustomed to this; we have all written to nationalised industries complaining about matters which have been raised with us, and we have had fobbing-off letters which, we have often suspected, did not contain the whole truth. How does this arise? Does it not arise because of a general malaise which begins at the top?
I believe that Lord Robens has rendered great service to this country, and can render service in the future, but he was at the head of this large industry, this vast organisation, which is condemned outright in this Report.
Why had the truth to be dragged out of the Coal Bord's officials by cross-examination? As I understand this Report—and I have also been given some of the transcripts and read some of the evidence—why did not a single Coal Board official make any admission in evidence in chief and why did the evidence, devastating it was, have to be dragged out of them in cross-examination?
How was it that the response of every official, from Lord Robens going on television on the second day—however unfortunate he may have been to have been interviewed at that moment—had to be permeated, as the whole Board was, with the same defensive attitude—adopted not only by the head of the Board, but every minor official? It was the attitude, "We must not admit liability whatever happens. It must be wrung out of us."
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
Would my hon. and learned Friend not agree that Lord Robens did not have to accept the invitation to be interviewed on television so soon after the disaster, and that it might have been better if he had waited and made adequate inquiries before expressing an opinion?
§ Mr. Hooson
I agree with my hon. Friend on that. I am sure that Lord Robens bitterly regrets that he did appear on television.
1949 Of course, we have all perhaps from time to time said things we should not have said and have regretted saying. What I think is the greater condemnation is that he allowed the Coal Board to conduct this defence at the Tribunal when he knew that what he said on television before the Tribunal ever sat was completely false and that those officials below, his legal advisers, were taking a certain course, and his counsel conducts a particular case on instructions, and he allowed them to continue with this complete farce. That is really the condemnation of the Board and its Chairman in this case.
I happen to be rather old-fashioned about these things. I believe that it is time this country got back to the traditional view of personal responsibility in these maters, even in publicly-owned industries. I think that one of the ways of doing this is for the head of the industry itself to show that he really appreciates his own personal responsibility in the mater. He should have resigned, and that that resignation should have been accepted, because those in authority in vast public enterprises must accept responsibility for what their subordinates do in their name.
I am not suggesting here, no one thinks I am, that Lord Robens, as it were, should have given or gave personal attention before the disaster to the tip at Aberfan or any other. Clearly, in an enterprise of this size, he has to take advice. Nevertheless, the whole atmosphere of the Board, the whole way in which it looks on itself, as revealed in the Report, is a condemnation of the way the Board has been organised and run, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the Government will pay great attention to what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Llanelly suggested, that there should be a far greater devolution of responsibility to the manager, and also far greater devolution of responsibility to the regions.
In conclusion, I would say this. Reference has been made to the great debt that this country owes to the mining community. This is undoubtedly true. Although I would be astonished to learn there had not been most thorough investigations now into the safety of the tips above Aberfan—and it would be 1950 monstrous if they had not been of the most thorough kind—nevertheless, the Government should give very careful consideration to this point. There is a psychological wound and a tremendous wound in Aberfan, and a great wound to mining communities as a whole. I do not share the view of the Tribunal that the estimated cost of the removal of those tips, about £3 million, is prohibitive in these particular circumstances. I have known myself of cases when millions of pounds have been spent on coal mines which have been closed the following year.
There is a case in Scotland where this has been done, and it has happened in two pits in the East Midlands. It would be worthwhile if the Government gave serious consideration to the suggestions that the tips at Aberfan are removed because the sight of them above the village is a constant reminder to its people. How can they live otherwise than in fear? For the removal of them, £3 million is a small but fair price to pay.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Pearson (Pontypridd)
The opening speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales showed clearly how anxious he is that the lessons of the Aberfan disaster should be learned and that effective safeguards for the future should be worked out. I feel in his debt for a contribution of notable quality in opening this debate. From the following speeches by right hon. and hon. Members it was discernible that a similar aim possessed their contributions, though one or two gave more weight to attaching blame.
A year ago, our first concern was that the facts about what happened in the dreadful hour of that October Friday morning at Aberfan should be fully established and made public. That work has now been done by the Tribunal appointed to look into the disaster, and its Report is before us. It is a first-class piece of probing, and it makes constructive recommendations. Every page gives the impression of being fair and detailed, with no attempt to cover up or whitewash. As a result. I feel that the truth has been revealed for the House and the public to assess.
1951 This terrible Aberfan tragedy has rocked the hearts of the nation and the world. Its occurrence has caused fear and apprehension in all areas where spoil tips exist. As a result of their nearness to inhabited districts, it makes people see more clearly the dangers which were unseen before.
After the Aberfan disaster and, before then, the Cilfynydd Common tip slide of 1939, the alarming incident at Tymawr Colliery tip, and now quite recently the slides at Oakdale, New Tredegar, Clyncorrwg and Aberbargoed, if these tips cannot be removed, we have no right to expect people to live in line with or in close proximity to their potential dangers. In passing, I make a plea for a policy to be considered and adopted, if practicable, for the progressive clearing of houses, schools and such-like buildings which lie in the sphere of danger.
What, then, is the spirit in which we should face the hazards lurking in these man-made monsters of rubbish? All our thoughts must be concentrated upon seeing that everything possible is done to prevent a repetition of the Aberfan tragedy.
The Tribunal's Report tells us how responsible authority was grievously at fault when it states that blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board. Those are bitter words for the Board and for all of us, because it can now be seen plainly that familiarity created a "soft conduct", a lack of appreciation, in vital matters affecting an industry shot through with danger.
The crux of past disasters—and present and future ones—is this soft conduct by personnel of major or lesser rank. It is writ large in the Tribunal's Report and shows that the maintenance of high standards of alertness is an essential element for the future. A halt to soft conduct must be called, and distinct signs of a new alertness affecting the safety of tips must be seen. There is still need for a call to go forth for thorough inspection not once, not twice, not thrice, but time and time again. That is the spirit in which we ought to approach the Tribunal's Report. I want to see the very best that can be done.
Let it be remembered that our periodic exceptional rainfall, which in a twinkling turns springs and streams into roaring 1952 torrents, is a abiding hazard to tip safety. In that connection, I want to read from a document issued by the Powell Duffryn Company in 1939 and brought up to date in an edition in 1945. It says:The amount of water which falls annually upon the hills in South Wales is enormous. If the rainfall is 60 inches in a year, and this is the average value, the weight of water deposited upon the surface 100 yards square is about 12,500 tons. All of this water must flow from the surface or soak into the ground, and the greatest danger of sliding exists when a tip is so placed and aligned on a sloping surface that its presence interferes with the drainage.We have too lightly passed over this danger of water. Hitherto, sufficient weight has not been given to the mischief which big rainfalls can create. There have been instances during the past week, and there are photographs which show that the bases of large tips run adjacent to mountain streams which flood and wash away the sides. No attempt has been made to protect any tip by walling against erosion. Will the Minister of Power give attention to it? The photographs have appeared in newspapers for all to see these roaring streams, and no attempt has been made to wall the bases of the tips to protect them against erosion.
To me, this is the soft conduct of authority, but I suppose that there will be whispers such as, "Oh, there is not much in that."To such persons, proper and adequate drainage has rarely been looked upon as a vital requirement, and if lessons are ever learned they are soon forgotten.
We have familiarised ourselves with some of the phrases in the Report. First I drew attention to the comment thatThere was a total absence of tipping policy";secondly, that… there was no legislation dealing with the safety of tips in force ";thirdly, thatAction needs to be taken to safeguard the future condition of the tips at Aberfan";and, fourthly, that all pits should be regarded as potential dangers. The Report was like a powerful light that focused rays of light on the basic shortcomings.
Those findings led to the Tribunal's important recommendations for a 1953 National Tip Safety Committee, a standard code of practice, the need to strengthen Her Majesty's Inspectorate by the addition of qualified civil engineers, the relationship of a local authority to plans for tips, the need for proper training for men engaged in the control of tips, and so on. I am sure that the House looks forward to these recommendations being implemented in early legislation, and I was glad to hear my right hon. Friend say that this would be done during the next Session. Our anxious eyes will be watching. There is a need to clear up who is responsible in every instance for making tips safe.
Since the Aberfan disaster more and more local authorities have requested consulting engineers to report on the condition of tips in their areas, and I think that this is a wise and prudent step to take. It has been said that the Government will make their contribution to the work of safety, and so on. These councils are taking no chances, and are playing their part in ensuring that effective schemes are adopted by the Coal Board so that future tipslides are prevented as far as is humanly possible, but the engagement of consulting engineers costs money It is a charge on local rates, and is fully justified. I hope, therefore, that an assurance will be given that this expenditure will rank for Government grant.
Let us make no mistake about it. The fright to and apprehension of people generally as a result of the happening at Aberfan have cut very deeply indeed. They are uneasy. When they peep out on a dark winter's night and see the lights of the watchmen scanning the tip with the rays of his lamp it is a little consolation to know that at least a watch is being kept, but nobody thinks that this degree of safety is absolute.
A Pontypridd councillor who resides on a hillside near a large tip which, in the past, has caused concern to the authority, commented at a council meeting:While the tip is there, danger exists.We all feel the same. Fears can only be completely quelled by the removal of these tips, but, the Tribunal says, even on Aberfan, thatthe removal of the entire tip complex is not a feasible proposition.1954 Such a conclusion, having, I suppose, application to all large tips, means that we must live with the potential danger and rest for safety on what warnings can be given. If this is so, we must ensure that there is a more sensitive approach to imminent danger warning that was the case at Aberfan.
What can science contribute in this respect? Will the science world be asked to assist? Will it be given consideration? We get certain warnings about flooding when there is heavy rainfall. I am certain that the House will want every facet of final safety precautions to be ventilated. No fooling about is wanted by anybody, and there must be no red tape in dealing with the hazards.
The House today has been debating another sad chapter in the history of our coal mning industry. It rocks and shocks us all, particularly when we remember that the victims were mainly children at school. The Report has shown in bold relief that past considerations have been concerned mainly with the dangers of colliery working underground. It was there that the disasters occurred. It gave rïse to a fine mining inspectorate being built up. However, we all admit now that a gap had been left, much to everyone's sorrow, in not paying minute attention to the problems of pit safety. This omission must now be made good. No tiring or slowing down should be allowed in this vital and important quest.
§ 6.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Gwynfor Evans (Carmarthen)
I am sure that we are all conscious of the harrowing sense of loss suffered by parents, relations, and friends at Aberfan, and know that this feeling continues. Our sympathy with them is very deep.
This matter must be discussed on a political level. We have before us this splendid Report by Mr. Justice Edmund Davies and his colleagues, a Report which concludes that the National Coal Board had no policy for the siting and control of coal tips. This afternoon we have been told the historical reasons for this, but we are concerned with what the Report reveals as'a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above".1955 I propose to concentrate my remarks on the total lack of direction from above", because I think that this is the central point, and one of the greatest public importance. I do not think that it would be unfair to sum up the Report's findings in that sentence in one word, namely, "irresponsibility" or "non-responsibility", and in the situation which this great tragedy has revealed one sees this irresponsibility, or non-responsibility, running through the whole structure of the Coal Board's administration.
We are not concerned with the question of public ownership. I suppose that we would be united in saying that there must be public ownership. What we are concerned with is the structure of the administration, the character of the structure, when there is public ownership. At the moment this irresponsibility seems to be a characteristic of the Coal Board's set-up in Wales.
Direction from above, which the Report found was totally lacking—and this is a very strong phrase—was the responsibility of the chairman and members of the Board. Not only were they guilty of this total lack of direction, but after the disaster they seemed to show an utter callousness. Perhaps it would be better to describe it as complacency, but I do not think that it would be wrong to use the word "callousness", bearing in mind our experience of the Coal Board's dealings with men who have been involved in accidents, or suffered from industrial diseases such as pneumoconiosis.
The Coal Board blamed everybody but itself. It blamed the weather, the rain, the springs in the tip, everything except its own failure and neglect. It was not until the seventy-fourth day of the Tribunal proceedings—by which time the black mass of evidence had overwhelmed the Board—that it admitted its responsibility. Mr. Justice Edmund Davies' Report speaks, in this context, of thetaint of arrogance and subterfuge".They are very strong words. Since the Board was eventually forced to admit its responsibilities it follows that if it had acted responsibly—if it had given the right kind of directions from above and had attended properly to its duties—this disaster would not have occurred. It 1956 was not a natural disaster; it was a man-made disaster. The cruel truth is that it was those who neglected their duties, according to the Report, who were corporately responsible for this disaster. They were the members and officials of the Board.
What a terrifying indictment is contained in the Report, which states quite starkly thatour strong and unanimous view is that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented.That means that the disaster would never have happened if the Chairman and his colleagues, and their predecessors—not only in the Coal Board, but in the persons of the previous private owners—had had a civilised and safe tip policy. It could not have happened if they had shown a proper concern for human safety.
If one drives a car dangerously and has the terrible misfortune to hurt somebody, or perhaps kill somebody, proceedings can be instituted. It is possible for a driver to be convicted of manslaughter. But it is not possible to take any sort of action against a public board. There seems to be one law for the private person and another for the public board. I am not suggesting that action should be taken against personal members of the Coal Board. I would not suggest that. But there should be some way of bringing a public board to justice. It has been protested that Lord Robens—and in my opinion Lord Robens should have resigned immediately, and should have stayed resigned—did not have any day-to-day knowledge of the working of this pit or of the pits in Wales or their tips. Of course he did not; neither did the Board. The Report says that direction from above was totally lacking.
If Lord Robens and the Board were responsible for the ultimate direction, surely they are ultimately responsible for what happened. Somebody must be ultimately responsible. That is my central point. If Lord Robens and the Board were not responsible, who was? This central point is of great importance in a democracy. The Report found the Coal Board responsible for the disaster, and the right thing, the decent thing, the just thing and the dignified thing for the Chairman to do was to resign and stay resigned.
I have received a letter from Aberfan. Other hon. Members may have received 1957 the same letter. It is signed by four ladies on behalf of the Bereaved Mothers Group of Aberfan. The letter does not mention compensation, money, or the personal circumstances of anyone. The one point it raises is the point that I am raising. Let me quote from it. It says:The Tribunal Report strongly censured the Coal Board for its failings in management, and discredited Lord Robens' evidence, which was full of excuse and evasion. Such outright criticism of his efforts on behalf of the N.C.B. to evade responsibility for the Aberfan disaster should have been sufficient for him to have requested that his resignation be accepted. The fact that Mr. Marsh refused to accept Lord Robens' noncommittal offer to resign savours very much of an 'old pals' act between the two.I quote this letter because it reflects the feeling in the district.
§ Mr. William Edwards (Merioneth)
Does the hon. Member place all that more importance on that letter—however tragic the circumstances—than on the views of large numbers of miners in the Merthyr Vale colliery and the large number of parents in Aberfan who supported the view that Lord Robens should remain in his job?
§ Mr. Evans
I put this letter forward as part of the evidence. It shows a more complete picture. Here, in this terrible tragedy, we have a reflection of the social structure of Britain—a structure which is still rent by class division One feels that this would not necessarily have been the situation if this terrible disaster had happened elsewhere.
I want to quote in translation from the October issue of a Welsh magazine of high repute, "Bara", which says:If the inhabitants of Hampstead or Llandaf had been threatened by this kind of danger there is no doubt that it would have been removed in time—but where is Aberfan? Does anyone think that an industrial corporation would have dared to erect such a peril above Eton or Harrow, or would have allowed children to remain there despite warnings? But these were the children of the working people.This is a feeling of which we must take note.
Let us suppose that such a monstrous mountain had been built above Hampstead or Eton, where the children of men of power and wealth are at school, causing the kind of awful tragedy that followed in Aberfan as a result—as the Report says—of a total lack of direction from above. I am sure that the House 1958 can imagine the consequences in the industry and its structure, and in the State. I have no doubt that the whole system would have been totally re-examined and refashioned immediately.
This irresponsibility in the conduct of the N.C.B.'s affairs indicates a massive flaw in its structure. I suggest that the fault lies in the size of the industry, which is under the central direction of a board. If this is true the blame attaches to the defects in the system rather than to personal failure. In my view, this huge, unwieldy and highly centralised industry is far too big to be run by a board of ordinary mortals.
The same defect is obvious in our political institutions. Just as Britain has the biggest population in Europe under a single Government, with very unhappy consequences for those who inhabit the periphery in Wales and Scotland, so the British coal industry employs more people than any other European concern. It is not the kind of order that a Welsh Government would have established or could have established. Its undue hugeness goes far to explain how it is possible for it to be permeated by this irresponsibility or non-responsibility. In these circumstances a change of officers would make little difference. As in the political field, so here, a radical change in system is what is required—a thorough-going decentralisation of power.
The odds are that if Wales had had her own Coal Board, with full responsibility for running the industry, this disaster would never have occurred. In these circumstances local responsibility and local initiative would have been fostered, and the buck would have stopped within a few miles of the pithead. Ever since the nationalisation of the coal industry we have given warnings that the consequences of this highly centralised system in this vast industry would be the evils of non-responsibility and irresponsibility, and so it has been. The disaster at Aberfan was the terrible symptom of a deep-seated weakness in the structure of the Coal Board.
This is a political failure for which it would be obviously unjust to blame the Board or its Chairman. It is the Government who are responsible for this—in the first place the 1945 Government, for creating this kind of highly centralised system, and subsequent Governments for 1959 maintaining it. The 1945 Government, as we know, inherited an unenviable legacy from the coal owners, but half a collier's lifetime has passed since then. The Government created and still maintains this form of State capitalism, a system in which the individual is constantly subject to tyrannous demands for increased production almost at all costs. Considerations of safety, of the health and happiness of the people and of the national environment all take second place. In Wales, of course, this system is controlled from remote London, and, from the Welsh standpoint, London is always a long way away.
The Aberfan disaster, therefore, is in large part the bitter fruit of an over-big, over-centralised, remote, impersonal and rather inhuman system which is imposed upon the Welsh miners. For this system the Government are responsible. Therefore, the Government cannot evade their share of the responsibility for this disaster. We are, of course, all in some part responsible, as we have been reminded by the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. James Griffiths), but it is the Government's responsibility for creating this system, and the Government cannot evade their fair share of responsibility for the consequences.
It seems to me to follow that even if the Chairman of the Coal Board is to stay, there is a case for the resignation of the Minister of Power. It is claimed for Lord Robens that he is indispensable. I have not heard anybody claiming that for the Minister of Power. In the Crichel Down case, for instance, in a matter which paled into insignificance compared with this, the Minister of Agriculture honourably resigned following an adverse Report. There were different circumstances, of course. We are now dealing with a State industry. But the Minister in the Crichel Down case accepted responsibility for an error made by his Department. He was no more personally responsible for it than is the Minister now personally responsible for what happened at Aberfan, but I think that the magnitude and horror of this catastrophe which resulted, according to the Report, from the total lack of direction from above, necessitates the resignation not only of the Chairman of the Board but of the Minister as well.
1960 This is not a matter of having heads to roll. This is a central matter for any social democracy. After all, to say that no one is responsible ultimately for the culpability of a State industry is an absurdity. It is a very dangerous absurdity. Where will this lead? That is the question I press upon the House and that is why I mention this matter—not at all as a reflection upon the Minister, but as something which is of the greatest constitutional importance.
Finally, I turn to a policy for the tips in Wales. I know that most hon. Members will not agree that the chairman of the Board or the Minister should go, but I think that most will agree that the tips ought to go. This is the first thing. They have been too long making lovely land hideous and their depressing presence has hindered the proper development of the country and of the community. These monstrous black cones are the legacy of 100 years of fortune hunting and moneymaking on a vast scale. Not only have hundreds of individuals made their fortunes there, but thousands of millions of pounds' worth of coal—nobody has calculated the amount, so far as I know, but it must run into many thousands of millions of ponds' worth—have been cut in Wales at the cost of thousands of lives. This has made an enormous contribution to the military might, the imperial prestige, the industrial power and wealth of England.
Apart from the meagre wages of the miners, what did Wales get in return? What has Wales got to show today for all this massive costly effort that should have given her as a nation economic strength and social health? Nothing but the tips of waste that top her hills and cast their shadows over her valleys and imperil and destroy the lives of her men, women and children. The tips should go. They should be completely cleared. They should certainly be completely hidden. Every tip that contains an element of danger should he cleared. It is not enough to plant dangerous tips with trees. Tips that have been planted with trees have been on the move for 30 years. We must move the tips.
It is a very costly business indeed if we are to erase the tips which are at a dangerous level, like a number are in my constituency. But let us consider that the 1961 cost involved may be a minute fraction of the wealth that has poured out in the past, the wealth that has been made for the State and for the whole community from this industry. Therefore, the community as a whole owes a duty to us in Wales, and, I have no doubt, other parts of England and Scotland, to clear these scars. The cost should not fall in any degree on the industry which is already overburdened, nor upon the local authorities. It should be borne wholly by all the communities of Britain.
We should see to it that the soil engineering aspect of the subject and the scientific study of this matter proceed quickly. It has been neglected in the past. If we are to have this rehabilitation we must make amends for this bad past. The removal of these tips need not be all financial loss with no corresponding gains, because great benefits can be gained from the soil in the tips, in restoring agricultural land, in creating new land in the bogs and even on the seashore, in preparing industrial sites—they are not so numerous in the valleys that we can afford to ignore them—from constructing playing fields and in building new highways that we sorely need in Wales. These are benefits, quite apart from the incalculable industrial and social advantages which would flow from the removal of these black eyesores.
The State owes Wales a huge debt. The State owns this industry which last year was responsible for this disaster. My hope is that the State will be galvanised by the disaster into re-examining and revising its relation to Wales, and that during the short period that it has left in Wales before Wales has its own government it will vigorously make amends for its sordid neglect in the past and repay a significant part of the debt that it owes to the people of Wales.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold Finch (Bedwellty)
I join with my right hon. Friends and other hon. Members who have spoken in paying tribute to the members of the Tribunal who investigated the appalling tragedy at Aberfan. The Report provides a wealth of information. It deals, in the first place, with the natural situation of the tip, the climate at the time, and what happened on that tragic morning, going into the risks and dangers attendant upon that terrible situation, and it puts certain 1962 responsibilities upon the National Coal Board.
If the Tribunal had done nothing else but set out in clear terms the circumstances of the disaster, the dangers at that time in Aberfan and the dangers at other tips in the South Wales coalfield and elsewhere, it would have made a valuable contribution to the welfare of mining communities throughout the country. We have a lot to learn from Parts I to V of its Report. Left at that, it would have been a most valuable Report. But it is when we come to Part VI that I am particularly interested now. We all regret the tragedy—of course we do—and now we must set about remedying the situation generally and making sure that such disasters can never happen again.
We all say that never again must such a thing happen. So did the Tribunal, but it said more than that. The hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynfor Evans) keeps saying that the tips must be abolished. Of course they must be. The Tribunal directed its mind to the lessons to be learned from the tragedy, and it is to this matter that I shall now address myself. I do not wish to follow the hon. Member for Carmarthen in going over the past. Let us remember that they were Welsh-speaking coal owners who ran the pits in South Wales. They were thoroughly Welsh coal owners who were responsible for the old tips and the relics of mining in South Wales. They were Welshmen, not Englishmen from over the Border, who were responsible.
We must learn from the valuable work done by the Tribunal and from the details of the disaster now revealed to us to ensure that the necessary legislation is framed and that procedures are put into effect as soon as possible so that this kind of disaster can never happen again. Not only must dangers of this kind be avoided, but, more than that, our townships in the coalfields should not have to countenance these huge black ugly desecrating conglomerations of colliery rubbish, in uncontrolled form, existing largely as the lips at Aberfan did on that memorable day, 21st October last year. It is to Part VI of the Report, therefore, that we must turn attention.
One of the Tribunal's important recommendations is that a National Tip Safety Committee should be set up. My 1963 right hon. Friend has already hinted that we shall have legislation as quickly as possible. I hope that a National Tip Safety Committee will be set up as soon as possible in order to deal with the whole problem on a broad front. The only criticism I have of the suggested National Tip Safety Committee—I see no reference to this in the Report—is that, as proposed, it would not have the necessary bite. The recommendation as it stands does not appear to provide for the necessary authority.
The danger in committees, tribunals, and so on, is that questions go from one to the other, with reports to the House of Commons, consultations with Ministers and the rest, and time slips away. If we are to appoint a National Tip Safety Committee, as I hope we shall, it should be charged with full responsibility, with the Minister having corresponding responsibility to the House on all matters affecting safety in the mining industry, and particularly in regard to tips.
My first criticism of the Report, therefore, if it can be called a criticism, is that, while the recommended policy is good, it does not seem that the proposed National Tip Safety Committee would have enough teeth or the necessary authority to get on with the job.
In this connection, we cannot take responsibility from the National Coal Board. The Board owns the tips. It is responsible. It must see to safety. It has the knowledge. I agree with Sir Andrew Bryan, a well-known authority on mining safety, when he says that the National Coal Board should prepare for consideration a code of practice giving guidance on tip stability and safety. I understand from my right hon. Friend's speech that the Coal Board has already embarked upon this policy. I hope that, when he winds up, the Minister of Power will tell us how far it has progressed with the preparation of such a code of guidance on tip stability.
We have peculiar difficulties in Wales. Ours is a mountainous area. I know the coalfields of Britain fairly well. The South Wales coalfield is quite different from Nottingham, Durham and Yorkshire, with their flatter tips. Our valleys are deep, and the mountains are high.
1964 Therefore, any code of practice giving guidance on tip stability will have to take into account the peculiar conditions of the respective coalfields in which the Safety Committee made its investigations.
It is not only tips owned by the Coal Board which matter. As the Report says, there are 16,000 acres in South Wales of derelict land, and half of this derelict land is owned by all sorts of people. Some of the tips are owned by people quite other than the National Coal Board. These tips have been there for years, and there are thousands of acres of abandoned tips, never used for a very long time. They are an inheritance from the old days of the Industrial Revolution, and never used since. Yet there they are still. These, too, should be examined from the point of view of safety. They should be periodically checked in the public interest. This would be part of the duty to be undertaken by the National Tip Safety Committee recommended by the Tribunal, and it should be one of its functions to report on them as soon as possible.
Many of the abandoned tips are outside the control of the planning authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) knows very well that county council has no authority over abandoned tips. Tips can be removed or taken part away. Some of them may fall down. The planning authority has on powers. I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales to look into this as an urgent matter. There is no recommendation in the Report on whether the planning authority should have power to deal with abandoned tips. The Tribunal makes some helpful suggestions about giving additional power to planning authorities, but I see little or no reference to the need for planning authorities to have control over abandoned tips.
The extension of existing tips creates another problem. The Tribunal recommends a revision of Article 3 of the General Development Order to ensure that permitted extensions of existing tips are subject to suitability and safety, but, although safety is our prime concern today, more than safety is involved. There is the whole question of landscaping and natural beauty. Let us remember the old days in the valleys of South Wales. My right hon. Friend must direct his 1965 mind not only to safety but to landscape and various aspects of planning. Nothing discourages an industrialist thinking of coming to South Wales more than the sight of the slag heaps which disfigure our land.
This is an important matter affecting employment. The valleys of Wales are beautiful places. Take away the old and abandoned tips, and it will make a great difference. I have often said that before the industrial revolution the valleys of South Wales must have been beautiful. but they have been marred by the coal tips. These factors must be taken into consideration when we talk about planning.
I do not know the financial arrangements when the Coal Board took over the unused tips. It took on a heavy liability, and has never used half of them since. If the pits are to be dealt with efficiently the job will cost a great deal of money. The Coal Board only inherited them and I hope that we shall have an assurance from my right hon. Friend that financial help will be given to it if it is to deal with unused tips.
There is a huge tip in my constituency at New Tredegar. Its base is 50 ft. from a street of houses, and the Coal Board is evacuating a number of the tenants. The tip has been standing there for years, having been built by the old coal owners. It is a danger and the Coal Board has taken certain measures, although the Board has not used the tip.
The local authority is to carry out a reclamation scheme and say that it will make a good job of the tip, taking most of it down. The Welsh Office advised the authority to get in touch with consultants. It has done that, but the consultants take a tong time to act. The Bedwellty Urban District Council put forward the scheme many months ago. I am told that we are short of consultants, including civil engineers and soil mechanics. If consultants are essential for a good job, more and more work is likely to fall on them, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will see what can be done to increase their number so that local authorities can get on with the job of clearing the tips.
The Mines Inspectorate will have to be strengthened, for mines inspectors cannot cope if they are to deal with the tip prob- 1966 lem. My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. James Griffiths) said that in 1958 there was a Royal Commission on Mining Safety. It met for day after day and week after week, but tips were never mentioned. There was also the Mines and Quarries Act, 1954, which was quite a good Measure introduced by the present Opposition, but tips were never mentioned. We put that Act on the Statute Book but did nothing about tips, despite all the brains and the engineers that we have in Parliament. In addition, there was a case in the House of Lords in 1921 which involved the slipping of a tip.
I agree with some of the things that have been said about the Coal Board's responsibility, but now let the House and Parliament as a whole face up to its responsibility. We must not put all the onus on other people; we are responsible as a Parliament. Year after year we failed to deal with the problem. I listened with great interest to the hon. and gallant Member for South Fylde (Colonel Lancaster). I recognise his wide knowledge of mining safety, but he was an hon. Member when his Government introduced the Mines and Quarries Act, in which no suggestion was made about tip safety.
§ Colonel Lancaster
We were told at the time that we were concerned only with the extractive side of the industry. That is why we did not deal with surface matters and tips.
§ Mr. Finch
Whatever the reason, no steps were taken to deal with tip safety.
I am not one of those who will harp on about the past. We want to learn a lesson from our dear friends of Aberfan. The parents have sacrificed their children. Can we now say in Parliament that we have learned the lesson and will apply our minds—as a memorial to Aberfan—to the problem of the South Wales coalfield in particular, and introduce new regulations, new Acts, so that this will never happen again? That cannot be done by waving our hands. We must have the necessary legislation and a policy to get rid of the tips.
Some of my hon. Friends may not always have agreed with me, but I have always believed that our nationalised industries should be responsible to the House in their everyday working. although that may take up more time. My 1967 right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly is right to say that when safety is involved we can put questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister, but very often that happens after the accident has occurred. We want to put questions from time to time on the everyday working of the mining industry, and I hope that the day is not far distant when that will happen.
I am pleased that in Monmouthshire we have 13 urban authorities which are now investigating the possibility of setting up a joint derelict land committee to deal with the tip problem. I want to thank the Derelict Land Unit of the Welsh Office for the work that has already been done and particularly the Welsh Office for the life it has put into it. But we must put even more life into dealing with the problem and into the Coal Board. Let us set up a tip safety committee with teeth and power. I hope that we shall be told in the very near future what steps are being taken to remedy the tip problem in South Wales.
§ 7.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Oscar Murton (Poole)
To all of us who have read the Report of the Tribunal inquiring into the ghastly tragedy at Aberfan there are four disturbing points which stand out clearly about the National Coal Board. Two which concern the period before the disaster are the lack of inter-communication between officials at all levels and the lack of imagination by the Board in not apprehending that there could be danger from unstable pit heaps. The two which follow the disaster are the lack of acceptance by the Board that the cause of the No. 7 Tip slide could be other than a geological coincidence, as it claimed at the time, and the lack of candour by the Board in not accepting full responsibility for the disaster before the Tribunal began to sit.
In the days before nationalisation, colliery companies were comparatively small units with smaller units which they had to administer. This small number of pits was fairly easily controllable, and the managing director or the general manager controlling them could effectively dominate all aspects of their work. They had an intimate knowledge not only of the underground workings but of the surface structures, too.
1968 White it is admitted that, from a national point of view, there were severe limitations in this system, in that the best use could not be made of the country's coal measures, yet it must be accepted by everyone without prejudice that those highly trained and able men knew everything there was to he known about the geographical layout and possible peculiarities of the area, and the best methods of working of the pits for which they were responsible.
Nationalisation, we all know, brought two main advantages—first, that the country's coal measures could be surveyed and worked as part of a coherent plan and, secondly, that adequate capital could be provided to work them. There was, however, undoubtedly one main administrative disadvantage accompanying nationalisation, and that was a form of organisation which diffused rather than defined and identified responsibility. This was inevitable in a huge industry, as hon. Members have said. Some hon. Members opposite say that it was too big an industry. On vesting day in 1947 it employed 750,000 men.
I should like to give two illustrations of the problem of only one part of the industry. On vesting day the headquarters of the Northern Division of the Board became responsible for the coalfields of three counties—Durham, Northumberland and Cumberland. That was roughly one-fifth of the newly-organised industry, 130 individual pits employing 127,000 men.
I speak with only a little knowledge of the industry. I do not possess the vast fund of knowledge possessed by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Fylde (Colonel Lancaster) or by the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. James Griffiths), or by many hon. Members on the other side of the House. But for a while I was Deputy Secretary of the Northern Division of the National Coal Board and for part of the time I was also acting as Secretary to the Board.
It was my job in 1947 to ensure that the system of functional control devised by the Coal Board in London was made to work smoothly in the Northern Division. This method of control, which is known familiarly as line and staff, requires a very high degree of inter-communication—not only the natural 1969 communication upwards and downwards but also communication sideways, because it has been proved many times that lateral communication can be as vital as vertical communication. One of the most important components of that communication was the system of conciliation and consultation, both of which were separate but vital parts of the whole. This was designed, as is well known, to enable the individual miner to identify himself with his industry.
In the Northern Division it was the special duty of a senior officer to examine all the minutes of all the colliery consultative committee meetings. His job was to see that the important matters picked out by those minutes were brought to the attention of the right people at area and Board level. His duties did not end there, because he then had the responsibility of following up to see that action was taken on those more important points which he had reported. Through very considerable co-operation which the headquarters of the Northern Division received from the area N.U.M., this consultative machinery worked excellently.
I mention this only as an illustration, for what I cannot understand in relation to the terrible tragedy which occurred a year ago is what happened to the similar consultative machinery in the South Western Division. There is no evidence which can be deduced from the Report to explain why there was this breakdown in the consultative machinery. The Merthyr Colliery Consultative Committee minutes, which revealed local anxiety in Aberfan about the tip of the colliery, were not seen, or so one is to believe, by the area general manager. Were the minutes transmitted to headquarters of the South Western Divisional Board? If they were, was any notice taken of them or of what they contained? One is prompted to ask, was this machinery for systematic communication working? Surely it must have been working? It must have been instituted and it must have been working. Why in this case did it break down?
A point arises out of this, because now that the divisional boards have disappeared under the Coal Board's recent 1970 reorganisation, the well-tried and effective role which divisional boards played in co-ordinating and as what we call a midway clearing house between the Coal Board and the collieries has disappeared. The divisional boards were well placed to co-ordinate the activities of the consultative machinery in all directions. I ask the Minister to tell us, when he replies to the debate, whether he has assured himself that the place of the divisional boards has been adequately filled in the new organisation.
Committee minutes, after all, are only skeletons. Their real meaning can be interpreted only by those who have a close and intimate knowledge of the pits and of the people who work in them and who manage them. Can the House be told that proper and full interpretation of those committee minutes will be assured if the channel in the future is to be from areas direct to someone at Hobart House who, at best, may have a knowledge of a coalfield—but how can he have a knowledge of a coalfield in the East Midlands which differs so much from a coalfield in South Wales?—and who, at worst, may have no knowledge of the atmosphere of a coalfield at all? This is a very important point, and the Minister should inquire into it in due time.
I turn to my second and third points —the lack of imagination in not apprehending that there could be danger from pit heaps and what I said about lack of acceptance of the fact that the fatal slide could be something other than a geological coincidence. The Report reveals the most fantastic blind spot in the thinking of the Board. Whether or not there existed statutory provisions for the safety and inspection of pit heaps common prudence alone should have suggested to those responsible that there was an absolute obligation to protect life and property from the operations of coal getting. I should hate to think that this great Corporation was so obsessed with its prime objective of coal extraction that safety was overlooked. Safety must always come first, whether underground or on the surface. It is a terrible tragedy that this lesson about pit heaps has had to be learned at the expense of human life, and words cannot express adequately our sympathy in the House and our deep sorrow for those who have been bereaved.
1971 May I turn, finally, to what I consider to be the most shameful aspect of this whole sad business—the lack of candour by the Coal Board in not accepting from the outset full responsibility for the disaster. The facts are there in the Report, for everyone to read, and they have been very fully discussed this evening by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It would be idle to say that there has not been considerable public anxiety about the attitude of the Board as disclosed in the Report, and I feel that an assurance is required from the Minister that the lessons and the recommendations of the Tribunal are being studied and acted upon by the Chairman of the Board and by his colleagues
I ask whether it would not be a good thing as a matter of principle that the chairman of the great board of such an important industry as coal—and this applies to any other nationalised industry—should be a full-time official
The only stricture I would cast upon Lord Robens—and I think that he committed more an error of judgment than anything else—is that, on the day of the disaster, he should have been in Aberfan. He should have been among the first to get there. I am sure that his absence left a spirit of wonderment in everyone's mind. We are all human but I am sure, with the knowledge of hindsight, that this was a fatal mistake. But that is all I wish to say about it. He should have been on the spot on the day of the disaster.
The Minister will have in mind what we in this House acknowledge—that it is the miners and their families who have to bear the final brunt of administrative mistakes. In the past 20 years, the miners have received many benefits which they had dearly earned the right to have. But, as time goes by, their livelihood is becoming less secure as the demand for coal declines. It is most important that we should protect those who still work in this major industry. We must see that safety precautions are no less stringent on the surface than underground.
Today, right hon. and hon. Members have suggested to the Minister ways in which this can be done. I would only add that Hobart House exists by reason of the pits and not the other way round. We must remember that. Lastly, and 1972 most important, we must at all costs prevent men and coal from going to waste.
§ 7.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)
Before Aberfan, the sight of tips to those of us South Wales Members returning from Westminster was almost a welcoming sign that home had been reached. But there were some of us who, even before Aberfan, had already expressed unease. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. James Griffiths) has pointed out with vigour how little attention was being given, but it should be fairly stated that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, East (Mr. G. Elfed Davies), for months before this incident, had been calling attention to his apprehensions.
But although some of us, including my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Probers) and I, gave a little aid to him, we are bound to feel a deep sense of unease that, in the many demands made on Members of this House, we did not focus our attention more definitely and more rigorously upon the views being expressed and propagated by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, East.
I suspect that much of the criticism that was made, in a major or minor key, before this event against acceptance of the existence and inevitability of the tips was regarded by many people as precociousness. The tips were there; they had been there when we were children and would be there in our grandchildren's day. That was the attitude.
But now the tips are no longer regarded as beacons of welcome or as landmarks evoking a sense of space, of locality, reminding us of familiar things. Now they are evil monsters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. S. O. Davies) pointed out dramatically, they are replete with forebodings. They are slumbering murderers and if they move, ever so slightly, they provoke the most cruel of anxieties. Those of us who have been in Monmouthshire last week, probing the new incidents which have occurred in our respective constituencies, know the fears that today the tips can inspire. If one stands on a devastated mountainside in the shadow of a tip and sees its menacing trail of slurry which has already partially engulfed 1973 a house, one knows that after Aberfan such occurrences can never again be taken casually. No reassuring words in Ministerial statements or by officials or mining experts can allay the deep-seated fears now totally in-built in the parents who live in our valleys.
Since this distinguished Report has been published, all of us know how little expertise is available on the subject of tip safety. Indeed, when tips are on moving mountains the credibility gap widens still further. However powerful Wales may know our Secretary of State to be, we know that even he cannot stop moving mountains. Of course, we must welcome the implementation of the Tribunal's recommendations and their general acceptance by my right hon. Friend. Of course, his acceptance is bound to be approved by the whole House.
But the National Tip Safety Committee as it appears to be envisaged, the standard code of practice and the strengthening of the Mines Inspectorate can none of them be a substitute for what South Wales is demanding, however—the complete removal of all tips. I believe that our people look with suspicion upon any programme which falls short of that objective.
Any notion that a well-consolidated colliery waste tip on a steep slope, even if it is completely overgrown with grass and covered by trees which can grow to 40 ft. in height, is safe, has now gone. We know otherwise now, after the movements at Craig y Duffryn at Mountain Ash. Landscaping, however skilfully and imaginatively it is done, is not what Wales requires. Nor is it enough to think of reducing the volume of tips by one-eighth, for example, by coal recovery, and certainly not if the remaining shale is merely to be piled back again on top.
I believe that the Welsh Press, in making demands for the removal of all tips, is echoing the wishes of all our constituents. After this month's alarms, the South Wales Argus, for example, spoke for most people in calling for the removal of every tip in our country. The Western Mail is speaking for all Wales in expressing impatience at the lack of progress in clearing wasteland in Wales.
All of us know that it is one thing to say all this and quite another to do it. To 1974 level every tip to the point where there can be no danger is a gigantic undertaking and the problem of cost is obviously well-nigh overwhelming. But I think that we should all share the approach of my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Finch), who has applied his mind to practical and realistic suggestions as to how safety can be stabilised and how we can perhaps bring about an end to the horror of tips.
There are matters which do not appear as yet to have been given sufficient attention. For example, there can be little doubt that a major contribution towards the cost of the removal of the tips could be made by coal extraction from the tips. I should declare an interest. I have a handful of shares in a public company in Wales which includes coal extraction in its activities. I have never understood why the Coal Board is not doing the work itself. It seems to me to be an obvious adjunct to its activities. This work should be done by the Board. I agree that it cannot be done wholly by the Board, but it could extend its activities further and perhaps in some ways participate with private companies which are at work.
It is clear that a great deal of the money that needs to be raised to remove these tips could be raised by means of coal extraction from them. For example, we know of the existence of the scheme which involved the removal of 3 million tons of the coal-bearing contents of the tips at Lewis Merthyr Colliery. It has to be moved a distance of between one-half and three-quarters of a mile up the one in four gradient of the mountainside to a natural depression on the mountain plateau, together with the spreading and landscaping of a further half million tons of red shale over the whole existing tip site on the mountainside. The work will be carried out at a cost of £150,000 and it is estimated to be completed in seven years. It will involve the transporting of 2,700,000 tons of discard shale.
Of that estimated cost 95 per cent. will be met by grants, leaving 5 per cent. or £7,500 to be provided by the Rhondda Council over a period of seven years. This can be done. Yet, without the coal recovery operation being co-ordinated with the tip removal, it is estimated that the cost of removing the tips would be at least £1,200,000.
1975 There is a proposed scheme at Nantyglo and Blaina which would yield 20 acres of industrial land. It is proposed to move two tips with a combined capacity of 1 million cubic yards completely away from the village of Blaina with a moving mountain on to a flat site of existing industrial dereliction which will give a flat area of about 20 acres. The cost, without coal recovery, would be £480,000. With recovery, it is estimated to be £50,000 to £60,000. With 95 per cent. of that being payable as a grant it could cost the local authority some £3,000.
I think that insufficient attention has been given to this. One of the reasons is because there is a danger that factors other than safety factors come into operation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly pointed out the dangers where economic or external factors begin to operate on people's minds when they consider the question of how to deal with the tips. I understand and appreciate that at a time when there is a contracting coal industry there may be a diffidence in using these tips for coal extraction. It is obvious that the cost of getting coal from a tip, as distinct from getting it out of a deep mine, is enormous. As anyone who has examined the facts knows, there is an enormous differential. However, I do not believe that considerations of that kind should operate. There should be no dragging of feet in efforts to try and make the tips as far as possible pay for their removal. I believe that if we do not face up to matters in a practical way the tips will remain as obvious signs of our continued impotence.
§ Mr. James Griffiths
My hon. Friend is making a valid and valuable point. Lots of money has been made out of coal recovery in South Wales. I agree that the Coal Board should do it and that the money should pour into the industry and not outside it as it does today.
§ Mr. Abse
I am in whole agreement with my right hon. Friend. I hope that the Coal Board will take note of what is felt amongst Welsh Members and will show a little more initiative. It is true that the money made by some private companies is by permitting conditions to exist which the Coal Board would not tolerate for its workmen. But, even 1976 allowing for factors such as that, there is no doubt that there is money in the tips, and it should be utilised to get rid of them totally. If we are to tackle a proposition of that kind and if the tips are to be removed with safety and expedition I am certain that a new planning approach is required.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty has pointed out that some strengthening of the planning procedures is necessary. If the proposition, which the right hon. Member for Llanelly supports, is to be carried out, it is certain that coal recovery tips need to be under planning control, which they are not at present. Legal distinctions between when is a tip a chattel and when is it land, so that it may be ascertained whether it is or is not subject to planning permission, are unsatisfactory. If we are to embark on a genuine policy of removing all the tips it is a necessary prerequisite that all the coal recovery tips come under planning control.
Our experience during the course of the last year has shown that inevitably planning, if it is permitted to be decided at too local a level, will lead to chronic bottlenecks. There is a great need for the Welsh Office to use the powers it has to call in planning applications. There are overwhelming reasons why the Welsh Office should not be diffident about calling in planning applications and determining them rather than leaving them to local interests.
I could give many examples. In the Bargoed Ward of the Gelligaer Council, for instance, there is the Cefn Brithdir tip, which is perched on the top of a one-in-three slope at a distance of about a quarter of a mile above two schools and a village of 200 to 300 houses. It was suggested that this tip, with a total capacity of 4 million cubic yards and on which coal recovery had been commenced, should be more speedily moved. It was suggested that the rate of removal should be increased by one-third and that the material be taken to another site, but in another ward of the countcil.
It was, as a result, blocked, because, naturally, one cannot take these tips off these mountains and put them in the depressions on our plateaus or put them into our valleys to be used as industrial sites. One cannot do that without the 1977 amenity of people in proximity of the removal or where the ultimate deposit is to take place being affected. I understand that the proposal for Bargoed has been obstructed because of the clash on this planning question. Such matters cannot or should not be left at such a local level.
I do not want to intrude into other people's constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare will forgive me, but I can say some things which he may be diffident about saying. The tip at Craig y Duffryn is a dangerous one near a main road. The authorities agreed to co-ordinate activities by removing the tip completely by way of coal recovery and placing the shale on nearby land which was on, shall I say, another council's land. Although one council agreed to this, the other council was not prepared, on the facts before it, to allow the shale to be placed on its land as undoubtedly it would have caused a considerable lack of amenity, even if it was for a temporary period. Sometimes even a county council, faced with conflicts of this kind, can get itself into the same dilemma and as a result there can be immobilisation when there should be great speed of activity.
I hope that the Welsh Office will not shirk the problem and will seek to bring in more planning applications so that it can co-ordinate the possibility of having coal recovery within the tips and, as a consequence, having the tips moved into safe areas. We can all put forward our various proposals which may help along the resolving of this exceedingly difficult matter. When we look back on it all of us must ask, "Why was more not being done; why was it forgotten in 1938; why was it forgotten in 1954?". However, we may be forgetting other thing, too. It is now suggested that we will be having a Mines and Quarries Bill brought in to implement the recommendations of the Tribunal. So be it.
The Mines and Quarries Act, 1954, was substantially in implementation of a Commission which had decided and made its recommendations in 1938, a generation having elapsed from the time the Commission reported to the time of the Act. I hope that mining hon. Members are aware that, as a consequence, in many respects the Mines and Quarries Act deals with a 1978 situation long since ended, not only in respect of tips, but in respect of many safety aspects.
To take the obvious example, the Act deals with the situation when there were tens of thousands of pit ponies in the pits and not thousands of miles of conveyor belts. No lawyer could read the Mines and Quarries Act and see the safety requirements governing conveyor belts, for example, without realising that people who are not miners but who work under the Factories Acts have considerable advantage in the protection which they are accorded.
I sincerely hope that, when considering what he is to do in the new mines and quarries legislation, the Minister will consider not only legislation affecting tips, but other industrial problems which may arise in future, so that we do not lag after events, but have legislation which is relevant to the type of machinery and equipment which is used in modern mechanised mines.
None of us can pass this occasion without also wanting to consider the wider problems. The speech of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) was one of the best speeches which I have heard him make. It was made with a sense of responsibility which was appreciated on this side of the House. However, he raised an issue which I should not like it to be thought was in the minds only of hon. Members opposite. It was why the Minister of Power decided not to accept the resignation of Lord Robens. I know that the hon. Gentleman did not raise that issue in any political sense. That was quite clear from the whole temper of his speech, which was very different from that of the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynfor Evans), which tastelessly sought to use even this tragic occasion for a political performance; Wales will not easily forgive that incident.
I can speak only of my own personal reactions. I am bound to say that when I saw what I regarded as the graceless pavane danced by Lord Robens and the Minister, as the Chairman of the Coal Board coyly offered his resignation and, equally coyly, the Minister rejected the offer, I thought that it was a disgraceful spectacle. The Tribunal's criticism of the rôle of the Coal Board has been echoed. It is easy for any of us to say what should have been done before the tragedy, 1979 and I accept that in greater or lesser measure we are all guilty about that, but, once the tragedy had taken place, it is made abundantly clear by the evidence which has come out of this distinguished Report that the rôle of the Coal Board was shoddy.
Despite the poignancy of the incident and despite the emotional feelings aroused, the Coal Board attempted to mask the facts. One wonders at the insensitivity of a Board which can possibly attempt to conceal instead of reveal everything which it knew or should have known about this terrible phenomenon.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly in part complained about the exposure which public men and their statements in public suffer, especially statements made on the spur of the moment in the blaze of the television cameras, statements which are subsequently regretted. I resent any interference by the Press or television in the private life of men in public life, but those of us in public life have no cause to complain when judgments are made on the public activities of those of us who have chosen to assume public rôles.
I do not accept the view that we are so diffident and shy about going before television cameras. I have not noticed that Lord Robens, or other hon. Members, or myself, are exactly retreating when the Press or television comes, and neither should we be; our job is to communicate to the nation, to speak and to tell, to give our opinions. It would be denying our rôle not to do so.
Can I, therefore, find some excuses for the inept comments which were made at the time? I can find some excuses, and perhaps Lord Robens could find many, to explain why, in his judgment, he felt that he should not be on the site immediately after the accident. But I can find no excuses whatever for the fact that, as the Secretary of State for Wales rightly said, we should have had probably the longest legal tribunal in history as a consequence of an attempt by the Coal Board to dodge the issues. None of us can know whether the instructions given to counsel to put the views of Lord Robens or as the result of his wrongly accepting the advice tendered to him, but he must bear his measure of responsibility.
1980 Lord Robens must take responsibility if he made such a grave error after receiving advice. As we know, he has been a man who has done zealous work for the coal industry and I would not wish to detract from the way in which he has sought to defend the industry. Nor would I seek to detract from the way in which he has raised the morale of miners in a contracting industry.
Everyone on either side of the House would acknowledge that as his due. But I can find no possible excuse for the manner in which the Coal Board, with his full knowledge, after the opportunity for consideration should have gone on for nine weeks tendering evidence which it knew, and which he must have known, to be evidence which was confusing and deceiving the Tribunal. I hope that the Minister of Power will explain why he did not accept the resignation.
I do not say that because I wish to find a scapegoat. On the contrary, I say this because I am as deeply concerned as anyone who is aware of the present mood of the public, because I am concerned about the future of democracy in this country. There is disenchantment and disillusionment and it applies to all parties. There is a feeling abroad in the country, plain to anyone who is not blind, a feeling perhaps that opportunism has taken over from principle, that the moment is more opportune than long-term honour and the integrity which should go with it; there is a cynicism about politicians, and it is a cynicism which could easily spread.
If people in public life make major errors of judgment, it does not help our democracy if they cannot be called to account as much as any incompetent, somnambulant lower Coal Board official.
If I have spoken long it is because I know that I have no one breathing down my shoulder and that there is ample time for my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare, who, I know, is waiting to be called. I want to speak, as all of us must at some time during our contributions, about the people of Aberfan. We say that it is time to leave them alone. This has been said by many hon. Members and it is true. To talk about it at all is a delicate matter and perhaps to talk publicly one should not say all one 1981 feels. There are some other matters which I want to draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Wales and the Minister.
I belong to a people, as a Jew, who have within their tradition institutionalised mourning. There is a period of mourning when people die, and although it is perhaps at first regarded as rather a primitive rite—some hon. Members may have seen this in the East, too—it is a way in which people in the end come to terms with dreadful reality. By chance more than design the hon. Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) and myself had an experience of meeting a considerable number of parents who had suffered the loss of a child, or in some cases, children. Those of us who are parents and can feel, and be identified with them try to understand the loss that they are feeling.
It was clear that many of these men have not and could not come to terms with the dreadful reality that they have lost their little ones. It is too easy to say that we should leave them alone. Are we doing quite enough, not in terms of giving them money, not in terms of bricks and mortar? Everyone has paid tribute, during the debate, to those who helped at the time of the disaster.
That is right, but the people go away from the disaster and the village is left with its grief. I want, first, to pay a tribute to the one social worker who is there, Miss Davey, who has been working there since the tragedy. I dare say many hon. Members saw the article in The Times recently indicating that there was no social welfare team. There is this one hard-pressed social worker. Are we satisfied that this is enough? Should there not be at least a few additional full-time case workers to make the job easier? How much easier it would be if she had a full-time secretary. Is it not time that we gave some consideration to whether we are not able to get a full-time liaison officer to work between the various community leaders?
We hope that before very long the terrible and understandable anger of these parents, which is at present so much of a problem, will be channelled into a more creative type of activity which will enable the community to try 1982 and bring something worth while out of the disaster. Can we be satisfied that the position over medical practitioners is adequate there? The strain upon those general practitioners who were there and knew the community has been appalling. Some have suffered as a result to an extraordinary degree and some have left.
In the present situation, when there is only one new general practitioner, is that adequate? Cannot the Ministry of Health do a little more than this? We think so easily in terms of bricks and mortar and money, but it is a contribution of work that is necessary. I do not want to dwell on the matter, because some matters are delicate.
The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations bas sought in many ways, directly and indirectly, to lend a hand. There are views within the Institute as to what should be done. They are all working out a way to bring reparated work out of a community which has suffered such a devastating blow. I hope, and I say this with some knowledge of the situation, that there will be no shortage of money to help a team, whether composed of social workers, psychologists or social administrators, if it is required. I hope there will be nothing which will hinder the possibility of lending a little more assistance to this community to enable it to work through this dreadful period.
If the inquiries are made, the plans or suggestions are available and I trust that it will be done. No one can have taken any pleasure in such an event. It is a bad and grim day for Wales and I, with everyone else, wish to express for what it is worth, my deep sympathy on this occasion, so shortly after the anniversary. I know that all of us, when we speak as hon. Members of our respective constituencies, say to Aberfan that from all our constituents comes sympathy and understanding as parents and a great hope that in the long run Wales will have learned enough lessons out of this tragedy so that, as has rightly been said before, those children will not have died in vain.
§ 8.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Probert (Aberdare)
I have listened to every word of this debate and have found myself in the most unfortunate position of discovering that 1983 my notes have consisted of something that has been said by one or more speakers repeatedly. So much has already been said that I shall confine myself to a few remarks on one or two aspects of the problems concerning the control and the removal of tips.
I feel that success here will do much to prevent a recurrence of what has happened. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) has expressed a number of points which I had desired to put. I shall refer to one of them, but I must say that I share with him the sympathy which he expressed in his concluding remarks to the people of Aberfan. I do so because I represent, and indeed live in, the constituency which is on the other side of the hill of Aberfan. I live on the very brow of the hill on the other side of which this awful tragedy struck the innocents of that village.
I should like to take this opportunity of thanking the many hundreds of my constituents who helped in so many ways to succour the bereaved people of Aberfan and physically to help to remove the sludge and rocks which caused that tragedy.
My constituency, like many in South Wales, has many tips, not all coal tips. I am pleased that the Report concerns itself, in its conclusions, with all tips and not only coal tips. Naturally, because of this, my two local authorities have this problem before them all the time.
As has been stated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. James Griffiths), the coal industry is beset with many difficulties, particularly that of contraction. Where pits are working, it is the hope of all of us in South Wales that they will continue working for many years until alternative industry is provided. Because of this, the local authorities do their utmost to ensure that the relationships between the Coal Board and themselves are cordial and mutually helpful, and, therefore, the problems of new tipping areas and the disposal of waste products from the pits are looked upon as problems which must have a solution in order that the pits continue working.
The local authorities, therefore, often have difficult planning choices to make. If the local authorities are obdurate in 1984 their objections to applications for new tipping areas, serious difficulties can arise for the Coal Board. I believe that the rest of the country is wholly unaware of such predicaments, and the choice facing the local authorities concerned is very difficult. Having said that, I wish to point out that my experience of my own two local authorities is that they carry out their duties and obligations very stringently in granting planning permission.
The Report states quite categorically that all tips are potentially dangerous. We would all do well to recognise this fact and that this view is the result of detailed examinations and the most expert advice which the country has been able to provide to the Tribunal. But I would go a step further. I believe that the age of the tip also has something to do with its potential danger. No one can tell what the many years have done deep down in the recesses of the older tips, and the ravages of time, and particularly of water, may have made many of the older tips far more dangerous than they were some years ago.
Having made those few general observations, I should like, without repeating what has been said, to refer to the problems of tip removal, on which the Report says very little indeed. I accept at once the recommendation for the establishment of a National Tip Safety Committee, but I think that the terms of reference for such a committee must include provision for the oversight and the actual removal, and workings attributed to such removal, of the tips for which planning permission has been given for such removal.
The principal objections to the removal of tips which appear not to be dangerous come from the residents nearby. Their objections are quite understandable, particularly by those of us who have experienced the nuisance which has to be endured during the years of removal. These nuisances are many, but I will enumerate just one or two. Chiefly, they are the incessant noise of the machinery, the dust, the danger to children playing in the area, the danger and nuisance caused by the transportation of the material and the creation possibly of new hazards and despoliation by the discard which has been removed and placed often on nearby land. These are some of the considerations 1985 which affect planning authorities when they have to accept or refuse applications for removal.
What happens when planning applications for removal are accepted? Time and again—and I am sure that this must be the experience of many of my colleagues in South Wales—the conditions which have been laid down are completely ignored by the contractors, and the residents, and, indeed the council, have to make repeated complaints before the regulations are enforced. A short time passes and the same thing happens again—and so it goes on ad infinitum.
I suggest that there is a number of remedies for that situation. The National Tip Safety Committee should have its own officers to enforce the observance of conditions laid down. Secondly—and this has been referred to previously—a code of practice and conditions must be adopted to cover the points to which I have referred and many other points which it is thought necessary to cover. I wish to emphasise that penalties for the non-observance of regulations which have been laid down must be very severe. I would suggest that they should be very severe financial penalties. It is most undesirable that work should continue in the evenings and during the night, so that the nearby residents can have some time for peace and leisure.
This brings me to another very important point, the conditions of planning which are essential to rapid removal of tips. In the interests of the older generation there should be as short a time as possible for the removal of tips. I suggest that three to five years would be reasonable. After all, that is a very long time for any person who is in the evening of his days and has to live near a tip which is being removed. This would also ensure that only the most skilled and financially strong contractors would be attracted to such propositions. They would have all the resources technically and financially to see the job through. That is very important. Nothing is more undesirable than to see a tip partially removed and then left just as it suits the owner. Sometimes a person who has contracted to remove the tip becomes bankrupt, and it is left derelict.
The proposals that I put forward are not negative ones but ones which if accepted 1986 would do much to allay the opposition of many residents to the removal of tips in their immediate vicinity which perhaps appear to them not to be dangerous. After all, none of us would feel much opposition to the removal of a tip if we knew that the work would be over in three or four years and that all the nuisances that I have mentioned were prevented.
I now come to a problem which must be solved very quickly. Recently in my constituency we experienced the slipping of a tip. Fortunately, there were no houses near, although a principal road ran at the foot of the tip. If the tip had been allowed to slide it could have caused serious accidents. It may be a salutary thought that the tip was considered perfectly safe and had not been tipped upon for many years. Indeed, it was grown over with grass, and there were trees on it—and there still are on parts of it—well over 50 feet in height.
I compliment the officers and staff of the Mountain Ash Urban District Council, particularly the engineer-surveyor, upon the very prompt action taken. This is well known to the Welsh Office. Assistance was readily given here, technically and otherwise, by the National Coal Board, the Welsh Office and Messrs. Ryans Holdings, a firm which has such great experience in the removal of tips. By co-ordinated action they prevented what could have been a major disaster.
The tip is privately owned. It is not my business here to discuss what are the legal responsibilities of the owners or their financial position in meeting any expenses involved. But I stress to the Secretary of State and to the Government that the local authority took immediate action on the principle "Something must be done very quickly, and we must talk about who is to pay afterwards." This is a very good principle to follow, but I regret to say that the talk about who is to pay still goes on. However, the local authority did the job, and I should very much regret it if it had to pay any of the expenses because it took it upon itself to act very quickly. The Government ought to look at this matter very closely. If local authorities have to bear expense for which a private owner is responsible but is not in a position to meet, it will discourage 1987 them from acting much more quickly than they would otherwise do.
Without question, there are many tips where if action were needed the owners would not be in a position to pay, as some of us know very well. Somebody must act, and somebody must pay but I hope that it will not be in this type of instance the local authority. Some advice must, therefore, be given by the Secretary of State for Wales and the Minister of Power to local authorities so that they can act quickly when this type of thing happens.
Lastly, there is the question of where we should dispose of the discard from the tips. Many of us are acquainted with the problem. It is all very well for a certain hon. Member to talk as irresponsibly as he did. However, I will not develop the point. It was the only speech made today with any degree of irresponsibility. I commend all other hon. Members upon the restraint with which they have spoken, particularly the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) who opened the debate on behalf of the Opposition.
These are practical problems and problems which have to be faced if we are to solve this matter. The transport of the discard over a long distance can make the removal of such a tip financially a complete loss to the contractor. Here I am in accord with my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool. I believe that any extra cost involved because of a condition which insists that such discard must be transported long distances must be one which the Government must reimburse to the local authority in order that any such planning permission would not prevent suitable contractors from taking on the job.
To illustrate what can be done I am going to repeat, very briefly, what my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool has said. During the Recess I took it upon myself to visit many of these tips in and around South Wales where they are being removed by Messrs. Ryans Holdings. I should like to thank Mr. Alun Rogers, the very able engineer of Messrs. Ryans Holdings, for the assistance he so readily gave me. I put it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that without question his technical and administrative knowledge of this 1988 subject can prove invaluable to the authorities. I repeat it because I think it is worth repeating, that from those tips 3 million tons of coal-bearing content was removed a distance of up to three-quarters of a mile, up a very steep gradient to a natural depression on the mountainside, together with the spreading and landscaping of a further 500,000 tons of red shale tip over the whole existing tip site on the mountainside.
This removal, it is worth repeating, will cost approximately £150,000. The operation will involve the transporting of nearly 3 million tons of discard shale. As has been shown, 95 per cent. of the cost will be met by grants, and 5 per cent., or £7,500, will be met by the local authority over a period of seven years, which, I suggest, is an infinitesimal sum. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool has said, without coal recovery being co-ordinated by tip removal in the way I have described the cost of removing the tip would be about £1¼ million.
I feel that this is an example which could be followed in many instances on the tops of our mountains where there are many depressions which could be filled in and appropriately seeded and looked after by the Forestry Commission, which is also, I am aware, interested in the example which I have quoted. I would, therefore, suggest that a survey be made of our mountain tops immediately, to see what areas can be used in the way I have mentioned.
§ 8.44 p.m.
§ Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
This is perhaps the most difficult and most tragic debate in which I have ever taken part, and I should like to say at the outset that I share the views of those who have spoken, that there is nothing party political in this whatsoever. The Report itself did not apportion blame according to party political affiliation. It could not, because responsibility and the discharge of responsibility do not go party politically.
There is, too, a far greater bond in this disaster than any party political affiliation could indicate. All of us who are here felt with the people at Aberfan that day. It is disastrous enough to lose a child—I think it is the greatest disaster that can befall any family—but to lose a child in that way was so terrible that words can hardly express how we felt.
1989 I should like also to say that we greatly admire the way in which the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Wales dealt with the disaster on the spot, the way he went down on the first day and the way in which he coped with things. We also appreciate the difficulty of some of the decisions which he had to make, particularly when the rains came on the following day. Although he is not here at the moment we also watched with admiration the way in which the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas), went about his duties there, and I feel that we should express this admiration. I see that the Attorney-General has come into the Chamber. May I say how helpful I found his opening speech to the Tribunal. I wish that he gave such good ones to the House, although I am glad that they are not so long. While I am on the section of my speech which pays tributes, I would add that we also admired the way in which Sir Edmund Davies went about and completed his task.
Before I come to what I have to say about the Report—because it is the Report which we are considering, and not conditions many years ago—I want to refer to one point that disturbed me as it disturbed the hon. Member who raised it during the debate. It concerns Tip No. 5 and the assurance which the Minister of Power gave when he intervened earlier. What bothered me was what the Report itself said about that tip on page 47:One may conclude that No. 5 has been standing and is standing at a very low factor of safety.When the right hon. Gentleman winds up the debate perhaps he will tell us that remedial action has been taken since then which at any rate has increased that factor of safety. As matters stand in the Report, there is doubt about the safety of that enormous tip.
Turning to the events of what must be the biggest tragedy on the surface in the history of coal mining anywhere in the world, I share the views of the hon. Member who said that, always when tragedy strikes, the person in command should go to the scene as quickly as possible. This may be as a result of my own background of a family company. When anything happens, the person who is head of it goes immediately. There is automatically 1990 a certain drill. He is responsible for the whole outfit, and he must go. Before he goes, he summonses his chief lieutenant and gives specific instructions to find the facts as quickly as possible, but he himself goes there to show people that he is there to see what is going on and to extend sympathy, while setting his officials to work immediately.
I regret that Lord Robens did not do that. I am somewhat surprised that he did not, but I will not pursue that further.
Let us see what happened. Apparently the National Coal Board was in session when, at 11 o'clock, the message reached Hobart House of this terrible tragedy. I am disappointed that, when it came through, no member of the Board immediately went to the accident. That is the next thing that should have happened. If the chairman does not go, one of the board members should go. He did not.
The other top man concerned was the Divisional Chairman, Mr. Kellett, who has already been mentioned. From the book which has been written on Aberfan, I understand that Mr. Kellett was at a power conference in Japan at the time. What puzzles me is that, according to the book, he received instructions that he was to stay there. This again I find very surprising. The tragedy was in his area. At the time, he had no deputy. His deputy had died rather tragically a few months previously. I find it surprising that he did not come back in time, and even more surprising that he did not come back to give evidence when the Tribunal sat, which was very much later.
There is a special reason why I find it surprising. The right hon. Gentleman knows that part of the case advanced by counsel for the Board was that absence of a tip policy should not be laid at the door of the Board, but at the door of that division. If someone is going to advance that argument, surely he must ensure that the head of the division is in the country, and, possibly, that he is brought before the Tribunal to give evidence? I understand that had Mr. Kellett been in this country he would have been competent to deal with the matter. He is a most able man, and would have given very forthright evidence. It seems that from the Board's point of view the handling of this matter went wrong from the outset. It is a great pity that it did. Someone 1991 spoke, or the Chairman spoke, before the facts had been found. This is a basic mistake which one should not make.
The opening statement of counsel for the Board at the Tribunal came in for a great deal of criticism, and reference to this has been made by hon. Members today. He would not even concede the existence of certain watercourses. In an ordinary law case it may be good practice not to concede anything which one does not have to concede, but in a case of this kind it would greatly have assisted the rest of the hearing had maximum obligation been admitted so that the Tribunal could go on to consider the technical reasons for the disaster.
I contrast what happened there with another inquiry, that into the causes of the accident to the drilling rig Sea Gem, a report of which was also made to the Minister. In this case absolute liability was admitted straight away, and cooperation was given to the Tribunal, as a result of which, instead of sitting for about 74 days, it sat on only 29 days, and made this comment:So generous, however, was the contribution of all concerned, that there can hardly ever have been an investigation better served by those who offered evidence.
§ Mr. James Griffiths
I am extremely interested in what the hon. Lady has been saying. Will she tell us by whom the book was written and when? I have never heard of it.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
It is entitled "Aberfan" and is written by Tony Austin. I am not plugging for anyone, but I think that it is worth reading. It gives many of the details which we might otherwise not have had. If I refer to it, it is only because it is my source of information. Where I get information from the book, I naturally refer to the source. That is my legal training.
I believe that it was the duty of the Board, in deciding what attitude to adopt towards the Tribunal, to avoid unnecessary waste of time, to avoid giving misleading impressions, and to admit errors at the earliest opportunity. This was not done, and I share the regret which has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I come now to the person whom the Board chose to appear for it at the Tri- 1992 bunal, Mr. Sheppard, to whom the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) referred. He was the most senior man to appear for the Board before the Tribunal. He was not a Board member. He was Director-General of Production, and head of the department responsible for tips.
I thought that his evidence showed a disquieting state of affairs with regard to knowledge at the Board's headquarters. I have looked at the transcript of evidence in the Library. It shows that at headquarters the knowledge of tips was in an abysmal state. He was in charge of pit safety from the Board's point of view, and I propose to quote some of the evidence that he gave:Q. Are you saying it was not appreciated at national level that tips do slide? A. That was appreciated, that tips slide.Q. Let me take the next step. Was it appreciated that when they do slide they can often slide a long way? A. That was not appreciated, no.Q. That was not appreciated? A. No.Q. Was it appreciated that tips were on steep hillsides in Wales? A. That was known of course, yes.I will go on with the questioning because it seemed one of the most remarkable series of answers to questions that I have ever read on the part of someone put up for his knowledge of tips. The Tribunal went on to question Mr. Sheppard about the literature about tips, of which there was a great deal kept at National Coal Board headquarters, circulated and comparatively well known. Mr. Sheppard was asked whether it was appreciated that a book had been written by Professor Sinclair in 1963, on "Ground Movement and Control at Collieries". He answered:It is a book I have not read, sir.There were two things here. First, the witness put up by the Board who was in charge of the safety of tips at the Board had such a curious line of answer that the Inspector of Mines referred to it as absolutely "astounding". The second point is that by the time the Tribunal had come to its fifty-first day the person who should have known all about tips had not informed himself about them, although he knew that he was coming before the Tribunal.
I was absolutely astounded at this. Any of us, if we had been going before a 1993 tribunal and had not known what we should on the day the disaster happened, would have dug out every bit of information; he would have trooped out staff before him and said, "You give me everything there is on this." That was not done.
Hon. Members may ask why I have made such a point of this. There is a definite reason. Mr. Sheppard's evidence was referred to by the Tribunal in very critical terms. It said, in paragraph 188, having discussed this evidence:Does it really lie in the mouths of the National Coal Board to say that they were wholly ignorant of such a possibility "—that was, slipping to disaster—and are therefore to be excused for having paid no attention to tip stability? And is Mr. Sheppard, in particular, entitled so to shield himself from all responsibility? Such questions … call for only one answer. They cannot be so excused. If, as reasonable men, they had given thought to the matter, they could not fail to have known and realised that, unless proper steps are taken, spoil heaps can and do collapse and that, if they do, they may imperil not only the safety of men working upon them but also the persons and property of others.That was what the Tribunal said about the tip expert of the National Coal Board.
What happened to this witness afterwards? This is important from the point of view of the confidence of the House in the manner in which the matter was handled at top level. I did not realise, until I got the Report of the Board, just published, what happened to this witness afterwards. Apparently he was promoted. I have read the evidence that he gave, and within a month or six weeks of giving that evidence he was promoted to be a full member of the Board.
He must have been promoted by the Minister, because the Minister appoints members of the Board. I found it disquieting that someone like that should be promoted against that background. With due respect, I would have thought that Lord Robens would not have been fully happy about it, because I have read his address to the National Union of Mineworkers on 4th July, 1963, talking about management and safety, when he said:There are lessons for management too in the reports."—those were the reports of the Divisional Inspectors of Mines. I know and follow 1994 them up personally, as I believe, on mine safety, Lord Robens did. He went on:If we are going to make pits safer for men we shall have to discipline the wrongdoer. I have no sympathy at all for those people—whether men, management or officials—who act in any way which endangers the lives and limbs of others.The question to which I want an answer from the Minister—and I come to it early—is: why, against that background, did he promote Mr. Sheppard?
I turn now to the findings of the Tribunal. I think there has been a bit of a tendency to believe that responsibility somehow does not attach to anyone and that, in any event, this would have happened. That was not the finding of the Tribunal set up specifically to inquire into this matter. The findings were clear and succinct, and they are one of the most severe indictments of an organisation that I have ever read.
The findings were:I. Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board. …II. There was a total absence of tipping policy and this was the basic cause of the disaster. …The safety of tips, which is dealt with in paragraph III, was referred to in paragraph 18 of the Report as follows:… our strong and unanimous view is that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented. We were not unmindful of the fact that strong words of calumny had been used before our Inquiry began. But the Report which follows tells not of wickedness but of ignorance, ineptitude and a failure in communications. Ignorance on the part of those charged at all levels with the siting, control and daily management of tips; bungling ineptitude on the part of those who had the duty of supervising and directing them; and failure on the part of those having knowledge of the factors which affect tip safety to communicate that knowledge and to see that it was applied.I have read out that paragraph in full for a definite reason. These were not failures of sophisticated management. They were failures of absolutely elementary management. The people at the Coal Board were not discharging their proper duties of management either to the industry or to the people in their care. This is why I think it is such a strong indictment of the Board. It so happens that the families of some of these people paid the penalty. But surely there was a tremendous duty of care to those who 1995 worked upon the tips as employees of the Board.
It was a failure of basic management, according to the Tribunal. When this happens, I think one is entitled to ask: who is responsible? There is somehow a feeling that no one is responsible. I despise any organisation or person who attempts to pass the buck further down the line. If there is not good management further down the line, it is because good management is not there at the top.
Let us look at some of these indictments. There was a failure of policy. Whose job is it to lay down policy? It is top management; that is the only job they have got to do. When they have decided upon the policy it is necessary to choose the right men to do the right job. Whose job is that? The choice of men again is that of top management, and it is the duty of top management to see that those jobs are carried out.
If there are no communications, either there is no machinery—again a failure of management—or else the machinery is there and it is not being used—again a failure of management—or else action is not being taken upon the information. All of these were failures of the National Coal Board as such, and this is one of the reasons why the document itself is such an indictment against the Board. Who then is responsible for this? It must be the Board at the top, and the Tribunal itself does not absolve the Board from responsibility. Indeed, it places that responsibility upon it.
Various questions have been asked about the resignation of Lord Robens. Some people have tried to put it as a doctrine of Ministerial responsibility. I should never raise any question of this kind as high as Ministerial responsibility. I think that anyone at the top of an organisation which has been found culpable, as this has, should always tender his resignation. Personally, if I tendered my resignation—I see that my leader has come in and is sitting behind me—I should expect to go. But this does not always seem to attach to resignations these days.
I come now to the assurances we want from the Minister. We are in considerable difficulty here. One of the crucial factors in the whole Aberfan disaster is that assurances were constantly asked, 1996 and assurances which were totally false were constantly given. How in the world are we to judge now whether the new assurances, which undoubtedly we shall be given, will this time be honoured? We do not know. But I make this comment. It is a jolly sight easier to exercise control in private industry. For example, it would be easier to tip off Courtaulds the ex-President of the Board of Trade than it seems to be to exercise control over the National Coal Board, which we own. This, surely, is wrong. [Interruption.] We shall see whether that is true. We shall see how much control we can exercise. The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), who is a constituent of mine, has not been present the whole time, but several hon. Members have raised the question and asked: how could we have controlled this particular incident?
§ Mr. Probert
Is the hon. Lady aware that, in 1938 or 1939, when the coal industry was owned very much at local level, there was a serious coal slide? I do not recall that there were any resignations at that time, or that anyone was removed from office.
§ Mrs. Thatcher
I have not made myself clear. The Report is a unique document which lays the blame. There are many disasters after which there is not a specific inquiry making specific findings which specifically apportion blame. I cannot think of one—perhaps the hon. Gentleman can—parallel with this.
§ Mr. James Griffiths
The hon. Lady is on a fair point, but I ask her to direct her mind to this. Will she read paragraph 70 of the Report? If she were a member of the Powell Duffryn company, whom would she have sacked?
§ Mrs. Thatcher
I know that the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect, mentioned paragraph 70. This is one of the matters which I had in mind when I said that the Report did not apportion praise or blame politically. That particular incident was not the subject of an inquiry which found blame. I hope that I have made the point clear to the right hon. Gentleman. I had passed on to the section of my speech dealing with assurances, which is rather 1997 important, because, in the past, people were lulled into a false sense of security by false assurances. If one is given a false assurance, one is often prevented from taking further action because one believes that action has been taken on one's past complaint.
The latest assurance given was given after the disaster. It is quoted in paragraph 64:Only eighty tips are at present in use, but the Coal Board has a regular inspection of all tips on its land, whether these tips are in use or not.That, again, was an assurance, given in the light of the disaster. The Tribunal itself says that, somehow, the Secretary of State had been grievously misinformed. I put no blame on the Secretary of State for this. We all rely on information which we are given. But the difficulty we are in now is that the past assurances, which were given in good faith, have been found to be false. We are once again asking the Minister for assurances. He has given some, and in answer to a Written Question on 6th June, 1967, his Parliamentary Secretary said:My right hon. Friend has ascertained from the National Coal Board that all colliery spoil heaps in their ownership have been critically examined and remedial measures taken in any case where there was the possibility of a hazard to the surrounding area A procedure has been established by the Board for technical and operational control over spoil heaps which includes frequent and regular investigations by specialists to ensure safety and stability. The Board have also arranged courses of instruction. …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th June, 1967; Vol. 747, c. 173–4.]I hope that the Minister will go a little further into this. I have read his document, but the House is in difficulty about how far he can scientifically give a firm assurance that all tips have now been made safe. I suspect that he cannot give it. Therefore, we should know how many tips are still potentially dangerous, so that people are not once again lulled into a false sense of security.
I think that the procedure outlined in the Minister's paper to be followed in the case of future tip sites and future tips is good. It is all right if one is starting de novo, getting the right sight, following the right procedure and stopping the tipping when it becomes dangerous. Our problem is with present tips and—one of the problems that occurred in Aberfan—tipping on top of 1998 other tips, on top of other slides, and in the gap caused by another slide. Obviously, all future tipping in bad areas will be stopped, but what have the Minister's researches shown him about existing heaps?
What progress is the Minister having with recruitment of the necessary staff? This will not be easy. It is easy to lay down what should happen and to want so many civil engineers here and so many more qualified people there. As far as I can see, they are now being recruited, but how many extra civil engineers has the Board taken on net? In an industry which, the Minister will be the first to agree, is contracting at present, it will not be easy to recruit qualified and skilled people to carry out the programme which the Minister says is necessary.
I note that the Board have also arranged courses of instruction in spoil heap management. They are pretty small courses are they not?—one day for staff and two days for those further down the line. It does not seem to me that everything about tip management can be learnt in those two days.
All kinds of other assurances have been given. The Answer to which I have referred said that the tips had been "critically examined". Of what did that examination consist? It is reported in The Times of 4th August that it was just a visual examination. Again, we face the difficulty that words are used which somehow give an impression of greater security than the facts behind them warrant. We now want a very dispassionate examination, and we should know exactly what the position is of all the tips which have been examined. How have they been examined and what are the dangers?
I also hope that there is now no complacency whatsoever in the National Coal Board. I hope that it has fully accepted the Tribunal's strictures. But I am left in doubt when I read in the Daily Telegraph of 31st August the account of an interview in which Lord Robens is reported as saying, after the Board's Report had been published:At no time did anyone think of pit tips as that sort of potential danger.That was on 31st August. I find that extremely worrying, because there is evidence upon evidence in the Report of the 1999 Tribunal of people who did think, and who still think, of those tips as a potential source of danger. One of those who warned the powers that be about the dangers of the tip was the schoolmaster of one of the schools, who died before the disaster occurred. He warned that the tip might come tumbling over and spoke of the fears impressed on him that the tip would come away again and would overwhelm the school and the houses. That was in July, 1962.
There were people at that time who had these fears about these tips and I am. therefore, worried that a statement like that should appear—I have no means of knowing whether it is correct—because it seems to indicate that the full danger from slides is not appreciated and if the danger is not appreciated then the remedial action cannot be taken to put it right.
I hope that the Minister will answer the questions which have been put to him during the debate. I hope that he will also say why Mr. Sheppard was promoted. I hope that he will say that he accepts the findings of the Report. We had a rather general phrase used at the beginning of the debate, and it was not clear whether the Government accept the findings of the Report. Unless they do, all the remedial action which should be taken will not be taken. I hope that when he replies we shall have a firm assurance backed by his own personal guarantee.
It distresses many of us still to read that all is not well in Aberfan. We have concentrated in the debate on tips, but it distresses us when we still read of continual flooding in the houses of Aberfan. I hope that the Minister will give attention to that matter, too. This means a great deal in ordinary everyday life and, so long as it goes on, the bitterness cannot begin to be alleviated. We all speak here as ordinary men and women, and nothing that we can do for Aberfan is too much. I hope that the Minister will go on doing things for Aberfan until Aberfan is made a beautiful place in which to live.
§ 9.18 p.m.
§ The Minister of Power (Mr. Richard Marsh)
In other circumstances I would refer to the position occupied by the hon.
2000 Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), but I do not think that this is the time or place for it, except for me to say that she dealt with a very difficult situation with the sincerity which those who know her have come to expect.
The last point which the hon. Lady made is crucial. There can be no question about it. The Government set up the Tribunal of Inquiry and the Government accept the findings of the Tribunal without qualification. There can be no argument about that.
As many hon. Members have said, this is a very difficult debate. I do not think that anyone who stood, as I and thousands of others did on that night at Aberfan, ankle-deep in the filth which had killed 116 children, will ever forget it for as long as they live. I do not think that it is possible or desirable to try to describe the sheer horror of that evening, and I think that to seek to share or even fully to comprehend the grief of those whose lives were shattered that day would be an impertinence on the part of any of us.
We are not in a position to comfort them and we certainly cannot compensate the families involved. We can seek only to ensure—and this is the main purpose of this and other debates which will follow—that nothing like it ever happens again.
I intend to deal with the points which have been raised in the debate, but I will deal, first, with one which has been raised a number of times—the appearance of the Coal Board witnesses at the Tribunal.
From the conversations which I have had with the Chairman and members of the Board, I believe that, quite understandably, from the moment the decision was taken to set up the Tribunal the Board was determined, one might say obsessed, that no one should ever be able to accuse it of trying to influence the Tribunal. Anyone who has spoken to any member of the Board, whether that person is right or wrong or whatever part of the blame attaches to him, rightly becomes conscious that every member of the Board is fully aware of how much they were all involved in the issue.
Therefore, the Board decided, rightly or wrongly, on a list of people it would 2001 call to give evidence to the Tribunal. These were the people who, in the Board's view, could make a contribution to the evidence required. That was the view of the Board and I think that it would have been anyone else's decision. The Chairman of the Tribunal, from the first days, was in possession of the names and posts of every senior member of the Board and the fact that the Tribunal did not call some of those whose names have been mentioned today was evidence that at least the Tribunal shared the view of the Board that these were not people it wanted to question.
I am not saying that the Tribunal was right or wrong, or whether I would have called these officials or not had I been a member of the Tribunal. I am merely pointing out that the Tribunal could have called Mr. Kellett, Mr. Collins and Sir Humphrey Browne and the fact that it did not call them suggests that it had come to a similar conclusion to that of the Coal Board. I will say no more than that. These men could have been there and would have been there at the slightest wish of the Tribunal.
I want to spend some time on what has actually happened since the disaster, but I shall come back to arguments about the allocation of blame, and so forth. On the day after the disaster, the Board was asked and readily agreed, as one would have expected, to carry out an examination of every spoil heap in the country for which it was responsible and. wherever necessary, to put in hand remedial measures regardless of cost or time in order to remove any hazard to life or property.
As the hon. Lady has mentioned, I have made arrangements for a detailed report of all the Board's actions since the disaster and have made it available to the House and to the Press. But there is no absolute knowledge in this. Right hon. and hon. Members, including the hon. Lady, have made criticisms and have asked questions about some of the things that the Board has done or is doing, and this is a good thing. But the worst thing that could possibly happen would be for any of us to think we know better on this matter. This is why I decided that it would be right to publish in detail what the Board has done and the suggestions and criticisms which 2002 have been made will be dealt with very seriously and examined in depth.
One of the aspects most disturbing about this incident is the sheer lack of technical expertise which was available. I freely confess that, on the day after the disaster, when I talked to the Mines Inspectorate in my Ministry, I rapidly discovered that which I did not know before—and the hon. and gallant Member for South Fylde (Colonel Lancaster) will be aware of this—that this was not the usual mining expertise that was needed. In fact, we had to look for an expert in soil mechanics.
The leading expert on soil mechanics was in Government service. I arranged for Mr. Creasy, an acknowledged expert who was then Deputy Chief Civil Engineer of the Ministry of Public Building and Works, to inspect the whole Aberfan complex and any other tips where the question of safety might arise. The ripples grew wider. We began to look elsewhere as well, and he has advised me on the china clay tips in Devon and Cornwall.
It is so easy—and I shall come to this point in a moment—to be wise after the event. There was very little action in this sphere before the event, but the tips were there for all to see. Very few people seem to realise how many tips there are in this country. They are numbered, as one hon. Member said, not in hundreds but in thousands. They have become so much a part of the geography of the society in which we live that people take them as hills that were always there.
In the frontispiece of the book to which the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley referred, there is a small extract from "How Green Was My Valley", which we have all read. I do not wish to become involved in an emotional outburst. I think that it is one of the most interesting parts of the book, because it sums up superbly well the discussion between the young man and the older man who describes this filth that was being piled up around the community. He says to his elder, "Why is it there?" In those days the answer was that no one challenged it because it had to go somewhere and they had always put it there. This is something the effect of which cannot be over-exaggerated.
There is a particular problem in relation to abandoned tips. On 31st October last year a letter was sent to 2003 all local authorities asking them to carry out immediate inspection of spoil heaps in their areas which might present a danger to the public; and, through our embassies abroad, we asked for information about any foreign legislation governing the stability of tips in an effort to see what could be learned.
It is an interesting and frightening example of how little thought had been given to this potential danger, despite the articles which the hon. Lady quoted, that, in the entire world, only in Western Germany and South Africa is there any such legislation. Today, every country in the world with this problem is realising the problem that the people in Aberfan paid so dearly to discover, and in every country where there are tips and mines there are governmental inquiries as to how best to safeguard their people from the disaster which hit ours.
As the House knows, immediately after the Report of the Tribunal, Lord Robens came to see me and offered his resignation. He was, understandably, very deeply and emotionally affected, but it seemed to me at that time that the first priority was to ensure that action was taken with maximum speed. We can have an argument today, and it is a fair argument, about who was to blame; but at that stage the important thing was not anybody's personal problems but how we could get some work undertaken. "was in no doubt—and anyone who knows the industry would have been in no doubt—that at that time if we had removed Lord Robens from office it could only have impeded the action which everybody regarded as a matter of supreme urgency.
I asked Lord Robens to leave the issue of his resignation until the Board had completed its task. The Board reported to me in August and, after studying the measures it had taken to remedy the defects, I reached the conclusion that they were satisfactory and that the time had come to face the personal issue of Lord Robens' offer of his resignation. I take full responsibility for the decision not to accept it. The right to appoint or accept the resignations of chairmen of boards of nationalised industries is vested in the Ministers responsible, and the decision not to accept this one was mine.
Criticisms have been made about the conduct of Lord Robens at the Tribunal 2004 and the fact that he did not go to Aberfan on the day of the disaster. These particular problems are side issues to the main point. I asked Lord Robens, out of interest, why he did not go to the disaster on that day. His view has always been a very clear one and I am bound to say that he holds it now. He formed the view that the important thing was for the Board to put into Aberfan technicians and not people who could not make a practical contribution. I know the alternative argument on this. I went to Aberfan, as did some of my right hon. Friends and hon. Friends. This is a matter of personal judgment.
Lord Robens's view was that if he had gone there as Chairman of the Coal Board he would have been the focus of some public attention and would not have had a real contribution to make in practical terms. So he took a clear decision and gave instructions that Sheppard as the Board's top mining engineer was to go there and work and that nobody else was.
This is a matter which can be argued about, because it is very much a matter of opinion and personal view. It is not for me to explain Lord Robens's conduct at the Tribunal. He has given his own explanations and he is responsible for them. Hon. Members can make their own judgments on the basis of the Tribunal's Report, which is quite detailed on these matters. All public men are criticised from time to time and sometimes the criticisms are justified and sometimes they are not. But the final judgment has to be made on a man's record as a whole.
There were a great many letters about Lord Robens's resignation, some of them demanding his resignation and the vast majority—although that does not matter, because this is not a popularity poll—saying that he should not go. I confess to being very much affected by the almost unanimous and total support which he was able to obtain in mining areas among miners. One can understand that. I would claim to have had probably as many arguments with Lord Robens as has anybody else in the House. We have disagreed on some things. He is a very big person, a very powerful personality. His expertise does not lie in finance or in a technical contribution. He is a leader of men, a superb leader of men, 2005 and with the coal industry in its present position the only justification I would have had for accepting his resignation would have been that I believed that he shared the personal responsibility in real terms which was greater than that of other people.
There were some people who wrote to me—and I may as well say it quite openly—who said, "We do not believe for a moment that this man is in any way responsible for what has happened; he is not a technical man and if he had seen the tip, he would not have known any more about it than you would; but, none the less, in a disaster of this size, heads must roll." His resignation might be justified on the basis of a gesture, it was said, because of the intense feeling which had been aroused.
Frankly, I do not believe that in an issue of this magnitude one could attach that level of personal blame unless one really believed that it attached in that personal way more to that individual than to any others on the Board. I do not believe that in an issue of this size one could make a gesture of a kind which would be virtually indecent.
Some people misunderstand the position. Lord Robens does not have the supreme position of a Minister in his Department. This is one of the reasons why—and the hon. Lady did not press the point—the doctrine of Ministerial responsibility does not apply. He is the first among equals on a Board all of whom are responsible to the Minister and one would have to consider dismissing the entire Board, because he is only the first among equals. I therefore decided—and it has been criticised today and other people have supported it—not to accept Robens's resignation.
§ Mr. Abse
Can my right hon. Friend explain whether he asked Robens what was his personal responsibility for the Tribunal having been misled, as is now clear from the findings, by the Coal Board for six to seven weeks? Everybody understands that his technical knowledge could not permit him to make judgments up to the time of the disaster, but what is troubling many of us is what happened after the disaster.
§ Mr. Marsh
This is separate issue—a big issue. I made the point at the begin- 2006 ning that there is a difference between the argument about the conduct of the inquiry to which he has given his explanation, and this other matter. This is on the record. He was disowned, or at least some of his views were disowned, by the Board's own counsel. It is known, and on record and it is secondary to the main problem, which was the disaster itself.
§ Mr. Marsh
I am saying that I think that it is secondary to the main problem, because the main problem was the disaster, how it happened, how it could be prevented. To be sidetracked on the separate issue of the conduct of the inquiry is wrong. It is something that can be raised again, it is something that has been raised. The big thing is to look at the disaster, who was responsible, what happened and how it arose.
The question was raised by the hon. Member for Finchley about the appointment of Sheppard to the Board. Sheppard is accepted as one of the leading mining engineers in the world. I think that it would be agreed that his professional position has never been in question. The need for an appointment to production director on the Board came before the Tribunal report. The production member is a key post. It is a technical post, and it has to be filled, and can only be filled by a highly qualified, experienced man in mining engineering.
The argument against the appointment, which weighed heavily with me—and there is no financial gain in this for him—was that Sheppard had not seen that which none of his predecessors had seen. Against that, if I had not appointed Sheppard I would have appointed a man who I thought was less adequately qualified to fill that particular post. It is a post crucial to the reorganisation of the industry and to the avoidance of difficulties of the type with which we have been concerned.
§ Colonel Lancaster
Would the right hon. Gentleman have appointed Mr. Sheppard to the Board after he had read the Tribunal's Report?
§ Mr. Marsh
This is a hypothetical question which I am not prepared to answer. I was faced with a position where a man was, if not on trial, at least involved, and had not been found guilty, 2007 and an appointment had to be made at that time.
The Tribunal's Report has drawn attention to the need for specially trained engineers. The Coal Board so far has 140 civil engineers, and is to recruit 50 more and a number of internal reappointments are being made. Mr. Creasy, to whom I referred earlier, has now been transferred to full-time work at the Ministry of Power, a division of the Inspectorate is being established and a number of civil engineering appointments are in the process of being made. The Tribunal also recommended the setting-up of the National Tip Safety Committee to advise the Minister and to co-ordinate research into the problem of tip safety. Such a body would be valuable and it could usefully make a start by considering a code of practice about tipping principles, as one of my hon. Friends suggested.
It will also be asked to advise about the research work which may be necessary into the problem of tip stability, because this is still something about which we know far too little. The Coal Board already has research projects in hand with Sheffield and Durham Universities into this problem. There are remarkably few people with the qualities and experience needed to lead such a committee, and I am already in consultation with the Institution of Civil Engineers and others to consider possible names for the men who should lead this.
§ Mr. Marsh
That will emerge from what I say about legislation. The terms of reference will be to advise the Minister oh matters concerning the stability of tips of refuse from mines and quarries and such other related questions as may be referred to it.
One thing which is essential in future is that tip movements should be made known to those in authority. I have already laid an amending Order to the Mines (Notification of Dangerous Occurrences) Order to come into force on 1st November. From then, any movement of material or any fire or any other event indicating an accumulation or deposit of refuse or settling pond forming part of a mine is or is likely shortly to become 2008 unstable will have to be reported forthwith to Her Majesty's inspector in charge of the district.
The House will also be asked to approve new legislation in the very near future relating to the tips of mines and quarries where there is work in progress. This is divided into two parts. First, it is our intention that there shall be a requirement that all tips of waste material from operating mines and quarries shall be kept in a stable condition. I shall ask Parliament to approve legislation which will make tip instability a criminal offence. That is very serious, but I think essential.
Secondly, there will be a provision requiring plans of tips and tipping sites to be prepared, kept up to date and preserved with other relevant information. Failure to comply with these provisions will be an offence under the Act. I return to the point that it is extraordinary that we did not even have legislation to ensure that tip occurrences were reported or even to ensure that plans and details of those tips were kept.
Thirdly, the powers of Her Majesty's inspectors will be extended to enable them to require tests of a tip to be carried out to check stability and for remedial work to be carried out where it is necessary.
Another problem, and a very serious problem indeed, is the abandoned tips of which there is no known owner. This is a legacy of a long, long past. This, also, must be dealt with. Therefore, we shall be inviting the House to approve a provision to enable a local authority to call for a report on a tip from an inspector of mines to provide powers for entry and to order tests to be made or for remedial work to be carried out. Provision will be made for local authorities to be assisted by Government grants where the cost cannot be recovered from the owner or where the local authority is in ownership.
We shall be having discussions with the local authorities about the method of operating this legislation. But one thing must be said—and this goes very much for local authorities. They will have a responsibility to watch the tips in their areas and to ensure that these things are pressed through. Many people say that they made protests. One hon. Member 2009 spoke about the effect of a centralised coal mining industry and its contribution to this disaster. The worrying thing was precisely that the problem never got out of the local area, incredible though it may seem. It just did not go up the scale. We must ensure that this never happens again.
§ Mr. Gibson-Watt
With regard to the warning of legislation for local authorities, would the right hon. Gentleman tell the House to what level in the Coal Board or in his Ministry any local authority in trouble of this sort in future, as Merthyr Tydvil was, should make representations? We know that the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. Arthur Pearson), rightly, brought the matter of his pit tip to the Chairman of the Coal Board himself.
§ Mr. Marsh
It really is not for me to tell a local authority to whom it should go. It is the job of local authorities or anyone else who is involved—we have all got local authorities with problems from time to time—to press that point wherever it is necessary and until they receive satisfaction. Of course they can come to the Minister. Of course they can go to the Chairman of the Coal Board. There is nothing new in this at all.
I want to go on to the question of the restraints upon Members of Parliament. Frankly, this is nonsense, and every hon. Member knows that it is nonsense. I was a back bench Member for seven years. I do not believe that there is a single hon. Member in the House who could not get an Adjournment debate or a Question on the Order Paper on a subject which affected the safety of his constituents. I think that we had better start facing up to this, too, when we are allocating all the problems.
§ Mr. Finch
It is not quite the point. I agree that we can raise a matter of safety. But it is the everyday working of the pit or the tip that we are concerned with here. Could we ask a Question about a tip in Merthyr or Bedwellty? Could we ask about a tip which is being 2010 worked and what the manager is doing about it?
§ Mr. Marsh
I think that my hon. Friend misunderstands the point I am making. I want to go into this in greater detail in a moment. I am dealing precisely with the simple point that any hon. Member who believed that there was a problem affecting the safety of his constituents could raise it in the House.
§ Mr. Gibson-Watt rose—
§ Mr. Marsh
May I just develop this? We do not want to get into an argument across the Floor of the House. I should like to put my point of view on this because it is an important and serious issue.
I will come back to that point in a moment, but I want to refer now to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. S. O. Davies), who made a very serious statement—indeed, a statement which, I think, can only cause very real fear and alarm in the hearts of people who have suffered enough already. Because of the seriousness of these views, which have already received great national prominence on the radio tonight, on my instructions these charges have been placed before Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Mines.
Senior officials of the Coal Board have been to the House this evening, and I have discussed the matter with them and with Mr. Creasey, the special adviser on tip safety and an expert on soil mechanics, and all I can say on all the advice that I can get is that there is no evidence whatsoever to support the allegation of the danger of another disaster like Aberfan. I think it would be wrong to arouse doubts and fears in the minds of these people unless there is some real evidence for it.
I give the House—
§ Mr. S. O. Davies
May I interrupt my right hon. Friend? I will not take up much time, because I know that he is pressed. But I have to remind him that he is just repeating precisely what was said before the Aberfan disaster happened. I think that if he would come to Aberfan, and look at the two big tips there on the ridge of the mountain, he would agree with me.
§ Mr. Marsh
I make the point because it is an important one. My hon. Friend has made serious allegations, which I dispute, and which are disputed on the basis of what advice I can get. Since he still apparently holds his view I will arrange for him to visit that tip in company with officers of the Mines Inspectorate. I am making a serious point here because he has raised a serious charge. I will arrange for him at the earliest time he can manage to take mines inspectors to that complex, and if he still feels that there are dangers, then it is for him to make the point, and he can make it to me. I give the House the guarantee, which I am sure will be accepted by anybody on either side, that we will go into this in depth.
I am bound to say that there is no expert advice—to use the dreadful phrase again—which supports my hon. Friend's conclusions, and I think that if this view which he has expressed is not supported, is not justified, then he is causing a great deal of anxiety which we must clear up—
§ Mr. Marsh
—at the earliest opportunity. I think that the offer is a fair one; we will arrange for mines inspectors to go with my hon. Friend to the complex and hear his views.
On the question of expert advice, it was said in the debate, my hon. Friend has just repeated it, and one can understand the people of Aberfan in saying it, that they have heard from the experts before. This is exactly what they have not heard before. There were no experts looking at these tips. That is why we are in the process of producing legislation, because this is the biggest gap of all. This is a highly complex problem; this is a highly complex skill; there are a very limited number of people available, there are not large numbers of them, who know enough, technically, about this, and the difficulty of getting civil engineers 2012 with this knowledge is a very real one indeed. I feel that this is one of the things we ought to be quite clear about, that the disaster was largely a result of not having the experts there.
What in future we have to ensure is that experts do look at these tips, that the tips are checked, cross-checked, double checked, and generally kept under inspection. It would be very foolish indeed if we were to get to the stage of treating whatever experts we can get at all lightheartedly—though I am not suggesting that the hon. Lady was for one moment. But we want the best we can get and we want to get people in training to ensure that more and more of the mining engineers have expertise in this field. This is something we will have to do.
This brings me to a couple of points which were made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) and which I should like to deal with in passing. He raised the very delicate problem of the disaster fund. This is not Government money; this is not a Government fund. It is not for us, not for me or a Minister, to interfere in how this is dealt with. It is a difficult problem, and it is one for which the Government are not responsible.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the very important point of the general method of dealing with emergencies of this size. A great deal of thought has been given to this. One of the difficulties is that every emergency, apart from the question of size, is different. The "Torrey Canyon" emergency, for instance, was entirely different although it was a major one. The Aberfan emergency was of yet another type. It is very clear, though, that there is no simple pattern of organisation which ought to be applied to emergencies, because their circumstances differ so very much, but the Government are reviewing the methods for dealing with emergencies and looking for the best way of dealing with them and ensuring that people get to the scene early and are able to control it.
Certainly, on this occasion, there were many difficulties, caused, I think, not so much by the organisation, or the lack of it, as by the very large numbers of people who moved into the area, some of them impelled by the desire to help, even if in 2013 the. rather frustrated way we all felt we wanted to help, but some of them just to look. One of the most revolting things I have ever seen in my life was people driving out in cars to watch. This is a problem, particularly in an area where roads and accesses are narrow and difficult. It is something to which a great deal of attention is being given to see how such a problem can be avoided in future.
We come, then, to the major point of the debate, which is, simply: who was to blame? One feature which worries me is that, if hon. Members really believe that they have the right to sit in abstract judgment they miss one of the major points of the entire Report. Of course, members of the Coal Board did nothing to prevent the disaster happening. The Royal Commission did not notice the danger. No Minister of Power, including myself, thought of it. In 1954, this House passed the Mines and Quarries Act, and we are amending that Act because it was inadequate to prevent the disaster. It was passed by hon. Members of this House, so we are all equally to blame.
Hon. Gentlemen may disagree, but that is a view which I hold strongly. It is so easy to sit here and say what others should have done. If this House had thought about it, something could have been done before, because there are mining engineers, miners, people with technical qualifications and lawyers in the House, yet we passed the Mines and Quarries Act with the inadequacies which made the disaster possible.
Not a single Parliamentary Question has been asked relating to it. If any hon. Member had put down a Question in the Table Office asking the Minister of Power what he proposed to do to introduce legislation for preventing tip slides, it would have been accepted. Not a single letter, anonymous or signed, was received, and in the Ministry of Power anonymous letters are treated as signed letters. There was not a single reference in any debate, and there was no Adjournment debate.
2014 In a few weeks' time, the Bill to which I have referred will be rushed through, because we know that it is urgently needed. It is urgent because nothing was done before. So let no hon. Member go away tonight thinking that he has the right to sleep easily. I wish that I could be convinced otherwise.
This has been a sad debate. It is too late to help. There is nothing that we can do for the people of Aberfan. Their children died as a result of the neglect of generations and the blindness of an entire nation. It is a blindness which has been shared in other countries. We can make no reparation for what has happened, and it would be an impertinence to try. When people have suffered as they have in Aberfan, there is nothing that anyone can do to help.
All that this House can do in relation to the Aberfan disaster is to ensure to the best of its ability that nothing like it in coal mining or anywhere else ever happens again through none of us noticing it. We will bring in legislation. We have to ensure that, constantly, people question that which authority does or does not do and question it all the way along. There are so many people who share the blame for the disaster. Everyone in the country wants to see this House ensure that it produces legislation which will prevent any reoccurrence and that never again will a danger of this size go unnoticed.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the Report of the Tribunal appointed under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921, to inquire into the disaster at Aberfan (House of Commons Paper No. 553).