HL Deb 23 July 1872 vol 212 cc1590-601

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


My Lords, I feel that I shall be consulting the convenience of your Lordships if I make the two Bills which deal with the regulation of mines the subject of comment in one and the same speech, because the matters to be treated of in connection with both are almost identical. And, my Lords, perhaps I may be permitted to express a hope that, on this occasion, I may be more successful than I have been in two or three recent instances in obtaining the co-operation of the noble Lords opposite. I need not dilate on the importance of these Bills. Manifestly they are of great importance, if we have regard to the number of mines and the number of people employed in them, for not fewer than 500,000 persons engaged in mines will come under the operation of these Bills. At present there are 3,142 mines under the regulation of the existing law, and in these 350,849 miners are employed. The number of new mines which will be included by the two Bills now before your Lordships will be 1,849, and the number of miner 92,565; so that there will be a total of 4,991 mines, and nearly 500,000 miners under the operation of these Bills. My Lords, the attention of Parliament was first called to the condition of the persons employed in mines by the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Shaftesbury), whose name has been associated with this kind of legislation for nearly half-a-century, and who, assisted by others, succeeded in obtaining an Act of Parliament 30 years ago, which, supplemented as it has been since by several other Acts of a similar character, has wrought a great change in the moral and physical condition of the miners, and has thus shown that the noble Earl and those who acted with him were amply justified in the course they took so long a time back. If your Lordships turn to the Report of the Commission, over which the noble Earl presided, you will find that sometimes children of five years were employed underground; that at similar employment women occupied a position which was physically and morally degrading; and that the moral darkness of the miners—men, women, and children—rivalled the physical darkness of the regions in which they worked. The Mines Act at present in force is one passed in 1860 by Sir George Lewis; but however beneficial that measure may have been—and that it was beneficial it is needless to say—yet the present state of things calls for some attempt to be made to remedy the existing state of affairs, for since the passing of that Act there has been a large increase in the number of metalliferous mines and coal mines. In 1864 a Royal Commission was issued for inquiring into metalliferous mines. That Commission was presided over by Lord Kinnaird. The Commissioners drew up a very careful Report, on which was based the Metalliferous Mines Bill, on which one of the Bills now before your Lordships is founded. In 1867 a Petition was presented to the House of Commons by the coal miners of the country; that Petition was referred to a Select Committee, and on examination of the statements of the petitioners, it was found that they drew attention to a vast number of points in the present state of the law, which, it must be admitted, were well worthy of the consideration of Parliament. The petitioners suggested certain alterations in the law, some of which were accepted, and some of which were rejected by the Select Committee. Your Lordships will find that many of the improvements recommended at that time are embodied in the Bills now before the House. I shall say one word as to the history of the Bills which have been introduced since the Act of 1860. The noble Lord to whom I have already alluded (Lord Kinnaird) introduced his Metalliferous Bill two years ago, but withdrew it on the understanding that it should be amalgamated with a Bill extending to coal mines. It was, however, found subsequently that the two classes of mines were so different that the regulations applicable to the one would be to- tally inapplicable to the other; and consequently the Government have this year endeavoured to deal with the subject in two distinct Bills. At the same time, I think the noble Lord (Lord Kinnaird) will recognize features of his own child in the Metalliferous Mines Bill, though I hope it will be found that we have improved on the noble Lord's effort. The subject of mines we divide in three great divisions. First, we deal with the employment of women and children; secondly, with the question of inspection; and, thirdly, with the question of safety. I propose, with your Lordships' leave, to describe in each case what is the present state of the law, and what is the amendment we propose. In the first place, as to women and children, your Lordships are aware that no woman is now allowed to work underground. As to children, no child of less than 10 years of age is allowed to work underground, and children between 10 and 12 are not allowed to go underground unless on a certificate that they can read and write; or unless on the condition that they are to attend school for six hours each week during their employment in the mine. After the age of 12 there is no restriction whatever; neither is there any restriction in the case of children who work aboveground. Now, that is felt by the miners—and I think it will be felt by your Lordships—to be utterly inadequate, though in cases like this it is hopeless to lay down any iron rule. The present system as regards children is inadequate, because, in the first place, there was no security that the certificate came from a competent person. The examination of a child might be the merest farce. Then, in case the boy cannot read and write, attendance at school twice a-week for three hours each time is not sufficient to enable him to obtain any usual amount of education. Now, this Bill proposes to amend the law in this manner. It proposes that no child under the age of 12 should be employed in a mine. The Select Committee on Metalliferous Mines thought that was the earliest age at which children should be allowed down in mines. There will be only one exception, and this will be in the case of thin seam mines, but not as a rule even in these. The exception is made in consequence of a Petition, signed by thousands of miners, which states their opinion—after- wards confirmed by the Reports of the Inspectors—that if the rule were enforced in the case of thin-seam mines the working of many of them must be retarded, and that working in these mines does not lead to physical deformity or injure the health of children. By permission of the Secretary of State, therefore, children will be permitted to work in thin-seam mines, even if only between the ages of 10 and 12; but the half-time system and educational conditions similar to those imposed by the Workshops Act will apply to the case of such children. They may work six hours for six days a-week, or 10 hours for three days, and their attendance for education must be at least 20 hours per fortnight. The regulation for boys above the age of 12 and under 16—the age at which they are commonly called young persons—will be that they shall not work beyond 10 hours a-day or 54 hours a-week, and the hours are to be counted from the time of leaving to the time of returning to the bank. Those are the main changes as regards employment, and they are mainly three—firstly, the limit of age for mining underground is raised from 10 years to 12 years; secondly, new regulations are laid down for boys between 12 and 16 years; and, thirdly, the provisions of the Workshops and Factories Acts are extended to miners working aboveground. The second division of the subject is inspection. In this no material change is contemplated by the Bill now before your Lordships. At present the number of Inspectors is 12. Ten years ago it was only six, and 30 years ago, when the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Shaftesbury) moved in the matter, it was only one. No doubt, it will be necessary, in consequence of the additional number of mines and miners which will come under the operation of the law, to increase the number of Inspectors, though I cannot at present state to what extent; provision has however been made for some increase. It has been pressed on the Home Secretary that it would be dedesirable to have a more extended system of inspection. The present duties of an Inspector are to have a general knowledge of the mines; to give warning to the owner if he knows of danger; to make inquiry into accidents; to attend accidents; and to make an annual Report as to the state of the mines in his district. Well, it was proposed by mine owners themselves, and by many other persons, that this inspection should be very much increased. The arguments against this proposition are that it would be inexpedient to relieve owners of their responsibility; that quarterly inspections of mines would be impossible without, at least, 200 Inspectors; and that even with such an inspecting staff the reports would be fallacious. In some cases mines are 80 or 90 miles in extent, and a certificate of safety given by a Government Inspector must be fallacious in such cases. Therefore, my Lords, the Bill proposes no change in the general system of Inspection; but under Clause 52 miners may appoint two of themselves to inspect the mines at least once a month. This system is pursued in Lord Vane's mine; it is one of mutual confidence, and it has been found to answer better than any Government inspection. Next under the Bill, certificated managers will be appointed in coal mines. This question has been discussed at considerable length in the other House. Accidents often occur from the ignorance of viewers; and the experience of Belgium and other countries proves that improved education of the miners and those over them would cure many dangers. The proposal to give certificates to managers has been objected to on the ground that it would take away the responsibility of the owners; but it will be remembered that the choice of the manager will still be with the owner. The only difference will be that he will choose a person who has received a certificate. Your Lordships know that at present masters of ships must obtain a certificate before they are allowed to go to sea in charge of a vessel, as must colonels of a regiment before they assume the command of men; and though I do not say the cases are quite analogous, there is sufficient analogy between them to make the argument drawn from the certificated masters of ships a sound one in the case before your Lordships, because it would seem only natural that managers of mines, who have the lives of so vast a number of persons in their care, should have certificates of some kind. It has also been urged as an objection, that experience is more valuable than science in the case of the management of a mine, Now, I do not wish to undervalue experience, or what is called "the rule of thumb;" but I do not see why experience and science should not go together in this affair of the management of mines. It is an acknowledged fact that many of the accidents which now occur are due to the ignorance of managers of mines. My Lords, various proposals have been made as to the mode of examination. There have been schemes for the nomination of examiners by the Secretary of State, and schemes for the election of examiners by different classes of persons. These plans have been much discussed, and as a result a mixed plan has been adopted in the Bill. This plan is that the Home Secretary should, nominate three owners, three miners, and three engineers, who will form a Board of nine, and this Board, in conjunction with the Inspector of the district, will choose the examiners. The general rule in future will be that all managers must obtain a certificate by examination; but if such a system were carried into operation at once, one of its effects would be to throw out of employment a number of valuable men, who, though unable to pass an examination, are perfectly competent for their posts by reason of long practical experience. The way in which this difficulty is met is by a certificate granted for service of 12 months as managers of a mine at some time within the last five years. My Lords, I venture to think this system will increase the securities for safety without unduly diminishing the responsibilities which ought always to rest with the owners and occupiers of mines. My Lords, I now come to the third division of the subject. It is the most important one, because it has to do directly with the safety of the miners; and, therefore, the Bill contains a variety of provisions calculated to effect the desired object. The first part of this branch of the Bill is a re-enactment of the measure passed in consequence of the Hartley Colliery accident—namely, the necessity of having in all cases the advantages of a double shaft in order to provide another means of exit in case of accident; while the second contains a code of general rules that will henceforth have to be observed. The effect of past legislation has been to cause a decrease in the number of accidents, though, unfortunately, the number is still large. From 1850 to 1860 one life was lost to every 67,000 tons of coal raised; from 1864 to 1868 the loss was one life to every 98,000 tons; in 1870 the loss was one life to 113,900. The deaths in 1870 were 991, whereas if the proportion of one life to 67,000 tons of coal had been maintained, the deaths in 1870 would have been nearly 1,685. The number of persons employed per life lost in that year was 356. Part of the improvement, I must repeat, may fairly be attributed to the effect of legislation, though much is doubtless owing to the increased anxiety of owners of mines to extend protection to the men in their employ. It must also be remembered that, if the average number of deaths per annum is now 1,000, that by no means covers all the disastrous consequences of colliery accidents, because a large number of men are maimed by them, though not killed, and their names do not appear in the Return; but your Lordships can well understand that those accidents represent a vast amount of suffering and distress. Now, while on this point, I think it is important we should inquire into the causes of accidents, because there is an erroneous impression that by far the larger number are caused by fire-damp, though that is not the case. With regard to the causes of these accidents, they may be divided into four classes—explosions by firedamp, falls of roof, shaft accidents, and miscellaneous ones. Now, in the year 1870, the proportion of deaths resulting from these causes is thus—fire-damp, 185; fall of roof, 411; shaft accidents and miscellaneous, 400; so that firedamp only occasioned one-fifth of the casualties, whereas the fall of roofs caused two-fifths of them. The same result is brought out if an average of 10 years before the year 1866 is taken. Within that period, 9,916 lives were lost; 2,019 being from fire-damp, nearly 4,000 from falls of roof, and the remainder from miscellaneous causes. Setting that aside, however, proper ventilation in mines is, of course, a matter of the very greatest importance. The gas becomes dangerous when mixed with four times as much atmospheric air, and it ceases to be dangerous when it mixes with 14 times as much atmospheric air; and hence, my Lords, the necessity for the ample ventilation which the Bill consider necessary. Now, my Lords, in the existing law, the words under "ordinary circumstances" occur in relation to the regulations for ventilation. We omit them in this Bill, because they were almost valueless. How can the prosecutor prove that the circumstances were ordinary? The owner is considered primâ facie liable. An accident occurs which proves that the ventilation was indifferent, and the owner may exonerate himself by proving that he took reasonable precaution. But, my Lords, accidents do not occur in ordinary circumstances, they occur in extraordinary circumstances, though in many cases these may be foreseen to some extent; and any well-conducted system of ventilation should be intended to serve its purposes under extraordinary circumstances. Mr. Brough, one of the Inspectors, mentions the case of a blower of gas which gave off 130,000 cubic feet of gas in 10 minutes. When he first came to the pit, only 12,000 cubic feet of air per minute passed through the pit. He caused it to be increased to 80,000 cubic feet per minute. An accident then occurred, which, under the conditions in which the Inspector found the mine when he first visited it, would have caused the death of 500 men and 70 horses, but as it was, in consequence of the remedial measures taken, no life was lost. Every well-conducted mine has a great deal more ventilation than is necessary in ordinary circumstances; the object is to guard against bad management. I now come to the provisions for preventing accidents caused by the falling of roof or coal, and the custom regarding which varies in different localities. I have shown that this is the most frequent cause of death. The men are careless, and in their anxiety to make the largest wages they are careless in the matter of propping. In Durham and Northumberland there is a rule in force under which the miners are not allowed to prop their own work. The propping is done by different men from the miner, under the superintendence of the managers. What has been the result? In Durham the deaths from falls are 1.95 per 1,000,000 of tons of coal raised; in Northumberland the number is 2.75. In North and East Lancashire it is 4.70; in West Lancashire 5.81; and in South Wales 6.57 per 1,000,000 tons. In the last three places, the propping is done by the men who work out the coal, Of course, my Lords, when looking at these figures, we must remember that there are other causes to be taken into consideration—such as the hardness or softness of the strata, &c.; but, at the same time, the figures are so striking that they are well worthy of our attention. This part of the Bill proceeds, therefore, on the rule which has worked so well in Durham and Northumberland, but it does not go so far. It does not prevent the miners from propping for themselves, but it provides that this work must be under the superintendence of an overseer appointed specially for the purpose. Passing from that branch of the subject, I may mention, my Lords, as the law stands, coal can be weighed, measured, or gauged, at the owner's option, when brought to the pit mouth. The Bill before your Lordships, however, provides that coal shall be weighed only, and by standard measure. It is objected that the provision is an interference with contract. I admit that, but the interference is not further than is necessary. Various weights are at present customary, and the uncertainty of the capacity of the measures is a constant source of dispute. We think, therefore, that the provision has such advantages, that it ought to form a portion of the Bill. As coals are sold by weight, there would not seem to be any good reason why they should not be raised by weight, and it would be pushing the doctrines of political economy too far to reject the clause on the ground of its interference with contract. In order to meet an objection raised on the ground of the expense of providing weighing machines, the Secretary of State is to have the power of exempting particular mines from the operation of this clause. The last question with which I have to deal is the liability of owners. Our object in this Bill is to throw the responsibility on the owner, if he cannot prove due diligence. Under the Factory Acts of 1844 the occupier is primâ facie liable, but can exonerate himself if he can prove due diligence, and can point out the culpable person. We do not propose in the Bill to enact this condition. The owner will be primâ facie liable; but all that will be necessary for him to prove is that he had used all due diligence—that he had taken all reasonable means by publication and enforcement of rules to prevent contravention or non-compliance with them. As to the institution of prosecutions, it is provided by the Bill that the Inspector only can prosecute an owner or agent, unless with the consent of the Secretary of State. This latter provision is intended to meet cases in which the Home Secretary does not think the prosecution ought to be undertaken on behalf of the Government. Some apprehension has been expressed as to the provision for penalties; but I think your Lordships will find that the penalties are rendered more fair and just towards the employers and the employed. For a breach of the law owners will be liable to a penalty of £20 and £1 a-day during the continuance of the offence. The miners for a breach of the law will be liable to a penalty of £2. This is the same as at present, but the Bill gives an alternative of three months' imprisonment. Either an owner or miner may be imprisoned; but that would be only for a personal act—for personal default or negligence by which the safety of persons lives was endangered. Considering that hundreds of lives may be lost by one of these accidents, I do not think Parliament will be acting too stringently in giving the tribunal before which an offender is brought, the alternative of imprisonment in such cases as I have stated. There will be a power of appeal, and there is none under the existing law. There are many other matters of detail; but I will not trouble your Lordships with them upon this occasion, as I think I have touched on the principal provisions of the Bill. It has, moreover, been carefully drawn and carefully sifted in "another place." Many of its provisions are the result of mutual concessions between the various parties concerned; but, as a whole, the Bill follows the legislation of the last 30 years, and I ask your Lordships to read it a second time, in the hope that it will, even more than the other Mining Bills which have preceded it, succeed in diminishing the risks to which work-people engaged in mining operations are, by the nature of their calling, so much exposed. I have to apologize to your Lordships for the length at which I have addressed you, and which I feel could only have been excused by the great importance of the subject. The noble Earl concluded by moving the second reading of the Metalliferous Mines Bill.

Moved, "That the Metalliferous Mines Bill be now read 2a."—(The Earl of Morley.)


said, he could confirm the statement made by the noble Earl who had moved the second reading, that the rule with respect to propping now existing in Northumberland and Durham had been attended with the best effects, and he would recommend the Government to make the clause relating to that subject more stringent by inserting in it a prohibition against miners propping their own work, and that care should be taken that only experienced persons were allowed to undertake it.


said, that when he moved his Bill in the House of Commons in 1842, Parliament and the country were not ripe for the legislation that was required on this subject, consequently he had been obliged to confine himself to less than ought to have been done. What he and those acting with him at the time, however, did accomplish was a prohibition against the employment of women underground, and one against the employment in that way of any child under 10. In the same manner, the Bill now before their Lordships did not go so far as he could wish, but he thanked the Government for it, being very glad to take what was offered; more especially when he considered that what had already been done in the way of legislation had effected a considerable improvement in the moral and physical condition of the miners. He was not prepared to move any Amendments, because he knew that, in those matters, Parliament must proceed tentatively; but he thought that all the educational benefits of the Factory Act should be extended to mining children up to the age of 13. There was another subject to which he would refer, and which was, that in 1844 it was found that the engines for hauling things up and down the mouths of pits were in charge of boys of 10 or 12, and that as a matter of course many accidents were the result. He succeeded in limiting the employment to persons not under 15. This Bill brought the limit up to 18. He was glad of that, and should be glad to see the limit still higher, for young lads had not that sense of responsibility which persons ought to possess before they were employed at such a post. He was also happy to ob- serve that something was done in the Bill for the women employed on the banks of the mine, by limiting their employment to 12 hours a-day and giving them Sunday; and he trusted those changes in their hours of labour would have a beneficial effect, for some of these poor women were very degraded, and their appearance as seen in photographs showed it, and there was great room for improvement in their moral condition. He must also say that he was much against the employment of young boys in mines. In some countries—Prussia, for instance—no youth under 16 was allowed to be employed down a mine. One must consider what it was for a boy of 10 or 12 years of age to be for a number of hours beneath the earth in darkness. It must produce a serious effect on his mind, and the mental depression to which it necessarily gave rise must prevent the child from having much inclination for education. He could produce statistics to show how difficult it was to get such boys to go to an evening school, whatever the inducements held out to them. In conclusion, he must again express his obligation to the Government for what he trusted the Bill would do in elevating the character and improving the condition of a class who, with all their faults, were amongst the most generous, honest, and single-minded of our people.

Motion agreed, to; Bill read 2a.

Then the Mines (Coal) Regulation Bill read a second time; and both Bills committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Friday next.