§ The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Alex Eadie)
I regret to have to inform the House that there was a serious accident this morning at Bentley Colliery in the National Coal Board's Doncaster area. At 5.40 a.m., three carriages of a diesel-hauled man-riding train were derailed below ground. Seven men were killed and 17 injured. I understand that the Health and Safety Commission has this morning directed that the accident should be fully investigated and that a report will be made public as soon as possible. Inspectors of mining are at the scene of the accident. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has also flown to the mine to express his sympathy, in which we all share.
§ Mr. Tom King
May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expression of sympathy by the hon. Gentleman to the wives and families of all those who lost their lives in this tragic accident and to those injured? I also take the opportunity, in face of this very serious accident, to pay tribute to the normally extremely high standard of safety 1105 in the mines, which is an example to many other industries in this country and which makes this accident all the more tragic.
The hon. Gentleman's statement did not quite make clear that there will be a public inquiry. We assume that there will be. In that connection, is the hon. Gentleman aware of the statement made only last week by the senior district inspector for mines and quarries for South Yorkshire? This reported a welcome fall in the number of deaths last year but indicated a quite significant increase in the number of serious injuries. It attributed this mainly to underground transport accidents, indicated that they showed a serious deterioration in the situation and suggested the need for a systematic programme of training of haulage personnel. I hope that that very recent statement will be taken into account in the examination of this very serious accident.
§ Mr. Eadie
I think that all the relatives of the dead and injured will appreciate the hon. Gentleman's statement of sympathy. What he said about the high standard of safety in our mines is perfectly true. The hon. Gentleman referred to the statement by the mines inspectorate. Although that statement expressed concern about the number of accidents which took place in what is described as the haulage area, it pointed out that nevertheless the safety record was the best in living memory, although, of course, that is of little comfort to the dead and the injured and their relatives.
In reply to the hon. Gentleman's question about whether the inquiry will be in public, I can go no further than the statement I have made. People are on the scene and they are assessing the position. There is a time-honoured procedure for such incidents and no doubt there will be a statement later on.
§ Mr. Kelley
I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to join with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and, I am sure, everyone on both sides of the House in expressing sympathy and deep grief at this appalling tragedy which occurred in the early hours of this morning.
There is to be an inquiry, but I want to stress what the hon. Member for Bridg- 1106 water (Mr. King) said regarding the seriousness of underground accidents arising from haulage and transport and that they must be fully investigated. After all, in this modern age of high technology it should not be impossible to find solutions for the kind of thing that happened today, when, apparently, a paddy train got out of control, joined a bend and became derailed. I am sure that these things are capable of being solved.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in his absence, for speedily going north. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker), who volunteered to go up there because he probably has constituents employed in the pit, although they may not have been involved in the accident. He readily agreed to go north in order to give me this opportunity to be in the House this afternoon.
I want to stress the question that has been raised in authoritative quarters within the coal industry about the productivity agreement, which could be causing accidents. I want to ensure that the inquiry goes fully into the question of manning levels and of reports on maintenance and inspection, because in my opinion there was some fault at that curve where the train became derailed. The inquiry should cover the question of whether proper inspections are carried out and full maintenance requirements are observed by the National Coal Board.
This is the second tragedy to descend upon this small community. About 50 years ago, when I worked in the pit next door, at Hatfield Main, there was an explosion at Bentley colliery, and the gloom which descended on the miners in the Doncaster area had to be seen to be understood. The same gloom will be prevailing there today.
These people who talk about "greedy" miners should remember that these men— healthy, strong men, 23 of them— returning from a hard day's work two and a half miles underground, were suddenly crushed. Death came to some of them and serious injury to others. That is the price that men have to pay for coal.
§ Mr. Eadie
I think that the whole House will understand the feelings expressed by my hon. Friend, with the long 1107 association that he has had with the mining industry. We know that throughout the history of mining it has been the lot of miners to weep and bury their dead. I think that the House will also understand my hon. Friend's plea for a full investigation of all the matters he has raised and for the investigation to be made public. I can give the House an assurance that there will be a full investigation and that the findings will be published. The House will understand that people are at the scene at this moment and that assessments and studies are being made.
§ Mr. Skinner
Along with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and my colleagues, I, too, express my tribute to the families of those who were killed or injured. At the same time, I must point out that I find that I cannot pay too much heed to what has come from the Opposition. They consistently pay tribute to dead and injured miners, but never do they pay tribute to the miners when they are putting in a pay claim or asking for better conditions. [HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful."] It needs to be said.
Can my hon. Friend indicate whether the inquiry will take into account not the reducing number of accidents as indicated in the 1977 report but more closely the events in 1978, when the productivity scheme started, with a view to establishing whether there has been a shift in the balance that appertains in mines away from safety towards production? Can he assure us that that will be one of the matters to be closely looked into in respect of this accident and others?
§ Mr. Eadie
The whole House will understand the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about the injured and the dead. I repeat that investigations into mining accidents in recent history have always covered every aspect. I can only repeat that there will be a full investigation into this accident in all its aspects. Its findings will be made public, and I assume that a statement about them will be made later. If it is humanly possible, we must assure everyone, not only the industry and the House, that such accidents will not happen again.