On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I understand that arrangements have been made by the Government to provide an extra hour and a half for this debate. However, you will notice from the Order Paper that the instrument has not yet been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which is a matter of considerable regret. Indeed, the Committee would normally consider the instrument this afternoon and therefore it would be impossible to report to the House.
It should be recorded that the Committee is there to do a job and that it cannot possibly do that job if the debate takes place before the report is made, particularly in view of the fact that the Committee, when it considers the instrument, will consider a report from our counsel that the instrument is defectively drafted and makes unexpected use of powers. Obviously, I cannot predict the outcome of the Committee, but those elements are under consideration and, unfortunately, the House cannot consider that because of the rush to undertake the debate, which is at the insistence of the Government and not of the Opposition.
Hon. Members will have noticed the item on the Order Paper which the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) has referred to and has elaborated on. I am sure that the House is grateful for his comments.
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Management and Administration of Safety and Health at Mines Regulations 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 1897), dated 28th July 1993, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th August, be annulled.
These new regulations were published on 6 August after the House adjourned. They and the code of practice were supposed to come into operation on 1 October before the House resumed. That prevented Members of Parliament from mining areas from making representations on behalf of their constituents before the regulations came into operation, but it is not clear to people in the mining industry whether the new regulations are in operation at this moment or whether they are being implemented. I wonder whether the Minister would tell us what the situation is.
Perhaps the Minister will tell us which rules now apply below ground. British Coal has written to the industry's trade unions, saying that the necessary consultations for bringing the rules into operation could not be achieved by 1 October. In its letter it stated:
so in the meantime we intend to maintain the existing structures pending the outcome of such consultations.
Which laws now apply in Britain's mines below ground? Are they the old ones or the new ones? If they are the new ones, could the Minister tell British Coal?
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, if he understands this subject, should ask such a question. The regulations apply. There is no evidence to suggest that British Coal is not complying with them. The point which is being made by British Coal is that the existing structures —that is, where deputies carry out both the supervision and the inspection roles—will continue, and the regulations provide for that.
A large number of people are risking their lives working below ground today and they are confused about the situation. Certainly those responsible for the supervision of safety are confused about the situation. It is worth reminding the House that, on a previous occasion when there were substantial changes in the laws applying to safety under ground, those whose lives would be affected and the managements concerned were given a year in which to make the necessary changes in the arrangements, not a squalid little period in the middle of the summer, as was the case this time.
Under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, any changes to health and safety regulations must maintain or improve standards of health and safety. We believe that the new regulations produced by the Government will not maintain or improve safety standards—they will reduce safety. That is why the regulations are being challenged in the courts and why they should not be passed by the House today.
Basically, mines run by British Coal are the safest in the world. They are twice as safe as those in west Germany, and three or four times safer than deep mines in the United States and other parts of the developed world. That proud British record has resulted from the detailed safety regulations laid down by law, the uniquely powerful and effective position of pit deputies and, until recently, a culture in British mining that put safety first.
Clearly that is a good case for the Government to leave well alone. However, they do not intend to leave well alone. Nor do they intend to build on the sound foundations of the British way of doing things that has made Britain's mines the safest in the world. The new proposals will replace the detailed regulations which have served so well in the past, with codes of practice. The new regulations will dispense with the unique role of the deputies, reducing them to the subordinate position of safety inspectors.
The new regulations are intended to produce a new culture underground with paramount attention given to production rather than safety. Not content with that, the new regulations will permit the Health and Safety Executive to exempt any mine or mine owner from any or all of the regulations without reference to Parliament or the Health and Safety Commission. The new regulations are likely to result in more deaths and injury, more grief and anger and more sanctimonious Tory Ministers coming to the Dispatch Box to express sympathy for the victims and praise for the emergency services.
The Government are introducing the regulations to promote deregulation and privatisation. The Tories are addicted to deregulation and privatisation. Like all addicts, they cannot be deflected by rational argument or concern for others. They will sacrifice anyone to feed their stupid addiction. This time, it is the turn of the miners.
The Tory Government are determined to privatise what is left of the British coal industry. They got their friends in the City to tout Britain's mines and miners around the foreign coal companies, asking those companies what they wanted done to make the British assets even more attractive. They were told by the foreign coal owners that the safety standards in Britain's mines were too high, high safety standards cost money and more coal could be produced more cheaply if standards were reduced. Ever willing to oblige, the Government have set about doing what the foreign coal owners requested. The new regulations will change the rules to allow foreign coal owners to come to our country and to kill and maim as many miners in Britain as they have done in their mines abroad. They may reduce the cost of coal, but there will be a price to pay, and that price will be paid by British miners and their next of kin.
The regulations will be remarkably similar to those that prevail elsewhere in the European Community. If the hon. Gentleman had bothered to listen to what I was saying, he would know that all of the mines in the European Community are at least twice as dangerous as British mines, and many of them are three or four times more dangerous. We do not want useless foreign regulations. We want to stick to British regulations which have worked and which are the best in the world.
The changes to the regulations have been justified by some people on the ground that there has been technological change in the mining industry. However, some technological changes have made mining more complex and have increased the scale or operational size of the faces and the need for more human inspection.
At one stage in its formulation of the new regulations the Health and Safety Executive, which is supposed to be responsible for promoting safety, suggested that monitoring devices could be used to reduce the need for human inspections. One of the hazards that the executive had in mind was fires. It was then pointed out to the Health and Safety Executive that in 1987–88 only three out of 96 fires were spotted by monitoring devices. The other 93 were spotted by human beings; and the figures have been broadly similar ever since. In the light of those facts, the HSE had to abandon that line of argument, but persisted in pushing ahead with the regulations that it had formulated on the basis of its original false and sloppy assumptions.
It is also argued that fewer accidents occur at the coal face, where the law is stricter. There is some dispute about that, but the Government, British Coal and the HSE argue that there is no connection between contractors and the use of roof bolts, on the one hand, and accidents on the other. They claim that it is all a question of supervision. If it is all a question of supervision, surely the answer is to extend the stricter authority of the deputy to areas away from the face, as that authority is so successful in keeping down accidents at the face. That would be a common sense answer, but that is not what the regulations propose.
The real impetus for the new regulations is not concern about technological change, or some high-minded desire on the part of the Tories to reduce accidents away from the coal face; it comes from a desire to reduce production costs by deregulating mine safety, to promote what are called flexible working practices.
The existing regulations and their supervision by the deputies are the targets for those who call for flexible working practices. All the literature proves it. Mr. L. J. Mills, former deputy chairman of British Coal, asserted:
changes in face management have all tended to founder on the overriding statutory authority of the deputy".
Mr. Albert Wheeler, something less than a hero in the Scottish coalfield and the present deputy chairman, claimed that
The officials have the role of safety checks and supervision of workers. Over the years the numbers have grown to give more intensive supervision at each place of work".
He proposed getting rid of a quarter of that supervision. What he did not add was that, as supervision has increased, accidents have been reduced.
What he was really objecting to was the culture of safety that has, until now, predominated in Britain's mines. The Government wish to change that culture. As recently as 11 October the Minister with responsibility for coal told the Coal Industry Society lunch that he believed that the existing culture of British Coal placed it at a significant disadvantage compared with mines in the United States.
The culture of mines in the United States is different, I will grant him that; it is a culture that allows three or four times as many miners to be killed and injured, and a culture where crooked, multinational mining companies have systematically rigged the readings on dust monitors and put at risk the lives and health of people who work for them.
Those multinational mining companies showing an interest in our mining industry have been prosecuted and fined. Recently, much to their surprise, one mining official was sent to gaol, but that did not happen until the deregulating Republicans had been thrown out of office. That is the American culture that the Tories want to introduce into Britain's mines which, until now, have been the safest in the world.
The Government have been getting advice from Boyds, the American mining engineers. In a sane world, Boyds would put forward British ideas to make American mines more safe, not American ideas to make British mines more dangerous. For that is what Boyds is doing.
Boyds produced a report for the Government. The Government published it in January of this year. That was before the fatal roof fall at Bilsthorpe colliery which the HSE attributed not to the use of roof bolts, but to the collapse of a pillar of coal which was too narrow to take the weight bearing down on it or, even possibly, the absence of any pillar at all. So what did Boyds recommend in January in its report before that fatal fall? It recommended that the pillars between workings should be reduced to a quarter of the thickness presently required, even by British Coal. So much for the culture that the Government want to import from the United States. Unsafe for any depth: that is their culture.
The Government will no doubt argue that the new regulations have the support of the HSE, and so they have. But they do not have the support of the trade union members of the commission who made clear the view that the proposed regulations do not improve or maintain health and safety. The local authority member of the commission also questioned whether the regulations would, as required by law, improve or maintain safety.
The Government will also claim that the new regulations come from the HSE. I regret to say that these days the actions of the HSE are open to serious question. On mine safety the HSE has gone along with the management of British Coal and seems to see itself as having a duty to promote new working practices at the expense of its prime duty of promoting health and safety. It is ominous to note that in that self-same Boyds' report Boyds—the American mining engineers, accustomed to killing three or four times as many miners as are killed in Britain—says:
We acknowledge the more progressive attitude of HMI in the last year and encourage their continued co-operation and participation in improvement of colliery operations.
That is an unusual example of a poacher praising a gamekeeper. Poachers seldom praise gamekeepers, except when a gamekeeper conveniently agrees to look the other way. As a result of this progressive attitude and the continued co-operation welcomed by Boyds, the mines inspectors' relations with British Coal have become far too cosy.
I revert to the earlier example of the roof fall at Bilsthorpe colliery which killed three people. At present, although many people seem to be unaware of it, the use of roof bolts as a primary support is unlawful. They can be made lawful only if the HSE issues an exemption certificate. It claims that it issues exemption certificates sparingly. Such exemptions are supposed to lay down in detail the conditions appropriate to each particular case and to involve site investigations.
Yet the HSE's own interim report into the Bilsthorpe roof fall makes no reference to an exemption certificate or the circumstances in which the HSE might have issue it, what conditions, if any, were laid down or whether any site investigation took place. The HSE report into the roof fall, needless to say, exonerates roof bolts and attributes the collapse to the narrowness of a pillar of coal.
Had the HSE looked carefully enough, if it had looked at all, before issuing the exemption certificate, it would have found that roof bolts were to be used next to an old working, separated only by a pillar of coal just one metre wide, if there was any pillar at all. If the HSE had done its job properly before it issued that exemption certificate, it would have been alerted to the danger of the collapse of a thin pillar. It should have been aware of that danger because when a roof collapsed at Allerton Bywater on 26 July 1989 the self-same HSE issued a report which exonerated roof bolts and attributed the collapse to the thinness of the pillar involved. There is some explaining to be done, and the HSE should not be allowed to issue reports that exonerate it from a failure to carry out its duties.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what the miners in north Nottinghamshire want is reassurance on this point? Given the catalogue of accidents that my hon. Friend has described, is not the correct way forward the holding of a full, open and independent public inquiry? The Health and Safety Executive is in the dark; it is being asked to be judge and jury at the same time. That clearly cannot be right.
I entirely agree, just as I agreed with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) during questions to the Prime Minister.
There can be no question but that there are serious doubts about the professional competence and commitment of the HSE in respect of the issuing of exemption certificates at Bilsthorpe. The HSE cannot clear itself; I do not think it can be cleared. We need a full, independent inquiry to find out what went on and why.
That is an absolutely valid point. If what my hon. Friend is saying is true, does it not also follow that any new regulations recommended by the Health and Safety Executive are likely to be in breach of the legal obligation placed on it —endorsed by the Minister—to the effect that all regulations must have the aim of improving existing standards? It is patently clear from what my hon. Friend has said that the executive has not had regard to that important legal obligation, which was placed on it at the insistence of Labour Members in the 1974 Standing Committee.
I absolutely agree. The HSE also has some obligation to explain the following. When the collapse occurred in the road that was being driven through with the use of roof bolting, there was no total collapse in the parallel road that was not using roof bolting. Ministers will see from the photograph of the double driveway that I have that that is so. The traditional system of support proved stronger and kept up some of the roof. But for the fact that the parallel road was kept open by the effectiveness of the old-fashioned roofing, more people would have died, because the rescuers went in along the parallel road.
One of the reasons why most miners have long accepted that the roof-bolting practice is unsafe on its own is the fact that with the old-fashioned system of arches—still used in most pits —if there is a heavy roof fall, the chances are that the arches will be distorted or may even crumple and twist, but they will still leave a large enough aperture for people to escape through. My hon. Friend's photographs prove that, and the Ministers on the Front Bench should be ashamed of themselves. The Prime Minister says that there are three bastards in the Government. I do not think that he can count—there are three more on the Front Bench today.
Once again, I agree. If anyone, including Tory Members, has any doubts about what I say about the shortcomings of the HSE in relation to mine safety, I refer him again to the report by Boyds. It states that blanket exemptions to allow the use of roof bolts are being issued by the Health and Safety Executive and they cover, not a specific place or circumstance, but a whole seam in a coal mine. That was not what was intended by Parliament when it granted the HSE the right to issue such exemptions.
There are no questions on conditions appropriate to each particular case and on-site investigations. Boyds, the American mining engineers, to whose views the Government attach such paramount importance, say that blanket exemptions are being issued.
It is a disgrace and it cannot be right. No safety inspectorate that takes its job seriously should operate in such a manner, and no safety inspectorate with such a lousy record of enforcing the law should expect its proposals for the most far-reaching changes in Britain's mining safety regulations to go unchallenged. Nor can the Government justify the new regulations by relying on the perceived authority of an agency that is proving increasingly incapable of doing its proper job. I understand that the Health and Safety Commission is meeting to discuss reductions in the budget of the Health and Safety Executive. How will that improve the health and safety of miners?
The Health and Safety Executive has no authority in the matter. The House will judge the new regulations on their merits, and it should judge them harshly. Winston Churchill said that Parliament should direct upon the industry of coal mining a specially severe scrutiny and introduce regulations of a different character from those elsewhere. We already have such regulations. They have been in place for years and they have worked. They have made our coal mines the safest in the world. The existing regulations need to be updated and improved, but the new regulations do not update and improve on the old. Instead, the new foreign-based regulations uproot and cast aside a system that has proved that it works.
We are not considering some theoretical text on deregulation produced by the Adam Smith Institute. What we are considering directly affects the safety of men, our fellow citizens, working as deep as 2,000 ft underground —miners facing real dangers working in mines. We owe them a duty of care, and any hon. Member who takes that duty seriously cannot vote for the regulations.
We have listened to a disgraceful speech, a vicious and unwarranted attack on a tripartite body, the Health and Safety Commission, and the Executive to which it is responsible. The Management and Administration of Safety and Health at Mines Regulations were not dreamt up by me, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment or the Government—[Interruption.] They were submitted to the Government by the Health and Safety Commission. I would not have been prepared to lay those regulations before the House without a clear view from the Health and Safety Commission that they were designed to improve health and safety in mines.
Does the Minister agree that the idea of using the roof bolting is that it is cheaper than girders and would save money? The people who push for the introduction of roof bolting are those at Hobart house, the coal board officials, Clarke and his cohorts who want to take the industry over when it is privatised.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the Health and Safety Executive cannot allow exemptions for the use of roof bolts in a situation that would result in unsafe practices. That would be contrary to law. If the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) has complaints about the conduct of the Health and Safety Executive, he is free to raise them.
The debate today is about the Management and Administration of Safety and Health at Mines Regulations, which are not concerned with roof bolting except in so far as they put a stronger obligation on the management of coal mines and other mines to conduct their business in a way that gives priority to health and safety.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I would not have been prepared to accept the regulations without a clear view from the Health and Safety Commission—a tripartite body—that they were designed to improve health and safety at mines. The commission's advice was that the new regulations would remedy serious defects and inadequacies in the existing law. Those who are opposed to the regulations should ask themselves who sits on the Commission that has proposed those regulations. Commissioners who have submitted the regulations and approved the associated codes of practice include members of the TUC and representatives of the CBI and of local government. It is a disgrace that Opposition Members should seek to challenge their integrity in that way.
No, I will not make that clear. I will make it clear that some of the TUC representatives did not attend the meeting. The proposals were made by the commission with the express recommendation that they should be carried.
One of the reasons why there has been a delay is that I asked to be assured that the Health and Safety Executive was satisfied that the proposals are necessary to improve health and safety in mines.
The notion that the regulations are being slipped through at the last minute, as the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) had the nerve to suggest, is bizarre. Consultations on the regulations started in 1988 and all interested parties have had the opportunity to express a view and they have taken that opportunity. The British Coal Corporation, the National Association of Colliery Managers, the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, the National Union of Mineworkers, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, the Federation of Small Mines, the Mining Association of the United Kingdom, professional institutions, and Her Majesty's inspectorate of mines have all had an opportunity to give their opinions.
Did not it occur to the Minister that, due to the serious nature of the regulations, it might be useful for him to consult not only the Health and Safety Commission which had the majority view, but those organisations within the mining industry which, throughout the long period of consultation, had perceived grave weaknesses in British Coal's proposals? Would not it have been wise for the Minister to consult them before he decided to accept everything that was put before him, even though it is obvious to many in the industry that it is a recipe for danger?
The hon. Gentleman has followed the matter closely and will therefore know that a discussion document on the matter was published in 1988 and that there have been two formal consultation proposals. Endless informal revisions have been issued, there have been at least 10 meetings with the unions concerned and the proposals have been considered six times by the Health and Safety Commission.
Peter McNestry, the general secretary of the union that sponsors the hon. Gentleman, had the nerve to say on the "Today" programme on 25 August that the consultations were "single sided". The hon. Gentleman could do well to spend time teaching his sponsors how to count. There have been endless consultations on the matter and both sides of industry have had every opportunity to explore the implications of the regulations.
If that is a speech against the nature of tripartite bodies, I am surprised to hear it coming from the hon. Gentleman. The Health and Safety Commission is a tripartite body, and the unions have representatives. If he is concerned that the union representatives are being outvoted, he should know that the Health and Safety Commission proceeds by consensus. He should also know that it would be considerably easier for the union representatives to give their views if they attended the meetings where the matters are discussed. It is certainly true that at the last meeting not all the TUC people were present. Consideration of the regulations has been going on for some four years and they have been subject to widespread consultation. Despite all the consultation, where is the opposition coming from—except from Labour Members who choose to speak for the main dissenting voices outside? Who are the dissenting voices? They are NACODS and Mr. Arthur Scargill.
If the Minister wants to sustain the basis of the tripartite approach to health and safety, will he confirm that, at the final meeting of the substantial number of meetings of the Health and Safety Commission at which the proposals were discussed, the TUC representatives made it clear that they did not support the proposals and believed that the new regulations would reduce health and safety? That is what the minutes say. If the Minister wants to deny that, God only knows why.
Will the Minister also confirm that the trade unions that represent the bulk of the people who work below ground in British mines are so opposed to the proposals that NACODS, which represents the colliery overmen, deputies and shotfirers who have been responsible for safety so successfully all this time, is taking the Government to court because it believes that the regulations breach the basic law?
I can confirm that the TUC representative did not press for a vote on the matter at the final meeting. I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman take the line that he has taken this afternoon. I congratulate the Health and Safety Commission on putting the interests of safety ahead of the interests of trade unions and other lobbies that have put across a particular view. If we accepted the views expressed by NACODS and the NUM, we would have to believe that every other union and professional institution involved in the industry either has got it wrong or simply has no interest in the safety of miners in Britain. Only NACODS and the NUM have spotted that
These regulations would push our standards down to third world standards",
as the general secretary of NACODS described the regulations. That is in contrast to the view of the Health and Safety Commission.
I wonder what is the real reason why Opposition Members are getting so excited.
If I may make a proposition, I shall be happy to give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to knock it down. I wonder what is the real reason for NACODS and NUM opposition. It certainly cannot be safety, because the Health and Safety Commission would not submit regulations that reduced safety standards. The truth is that, as Opposition Members well know, NACODS sees the proposals on supervision and inspection, which the Health and Safety Commission believes essential for better health and safety for miners underground—
Opposition Members may not wish to hear this, but it is important that the House should be aware of why NACODS is opposed to the proposals. The truth is that NACODS sees the proposals on supervision and inspection as a threat to its monopolistic hold over pit deputies. That is the root of its objection. Before the regulations were introduced—the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras did not seem to realise that they were in force—mines could not be worked without a deputy being present. Of course, all deputies are members of NACODS.
The Minister asked why Opposition Members were worried about the regulations. He seemed to imply that we were after protecting some trade unions or trade union rights. Let me tell him that I spent 20 years working under the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 as an underground electrician. If I had not had the protection and independence that the statute gave me, on occasions I would have had to do things that people asked me to do even though I deemed it unsafe in that instance.
We and people in the industry are concerned that the Minister proposes to take away statutory rights that people have had for safety and production reasons, and divide people. I believe—leaving aside any coal industry politics —that it is a backward step for safety in Britain's mines.
If my memory serves me well, every change of regulation that has taken place in the coal industry this century has happened through consensus. The Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and says that we cannot get consensus for the changes from people who work underground in those dangerous conditions. I think that that is a precedent which no Government should accept in an industry such as coal mining.
The Health and Safety Commission proceeds by consensus. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the importance of safety and I accept his experience. I should have thought, therefore, that he would welcome the regulations, which, for the first time, place a duty on all management in the mines to put safety ahead of every other matter.
I shall reply to the hon. Member for Rother Valley first. NACODS is worried because it perceives a threat to its membership. If one looks at the position from the point of view of what is happening in the mines, however, there still needs to be a minimum level of qualification, because the changes will simply mean that someone might be called a manager or a supervisor. NACODS feels that its position as the deputies' union is under threat. It is not the members' health and safety that it is concerned about; it is merely the self-interest of the union. The health of the union, not the safety of the members, is uppermost in its mind.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I make no apologies for speaking with passion and concern about an industry in which I worked for 29 years and where one leaves so much of oneself behind and so many fellow colleagues have suffered accident, serious injury or death. That is why we speak with passion.
The Minister should understand that collieries are deeper and machinery is more powerful than in the past, and there is pressure, not just from the colliery manager, but from the silhouettes in Hobart house with their computers, who, at times, are aware of breakdowns before the colliery manager.
The pressures on management and workmen are now so intense that we should seek to strengthen the present regulations. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), I was an electrician underground and many was the occasion when I had recourse to the miners' regulations in the top pocket of my waistcoat against the under-manager, the manager and the group manager. That protection will be removed. It is a detrimental step; a step back to the dark ages.
Order. I do not only express my remarks to the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, but I make the point that nine hon. Members are hoping to catch my eye during the short debate and if we continue to have long interventions some will not be successful.
I agreed with everything that the hon. Gentleman said until he neared the end of his remarks. It cannot be right, given what he describes—an industry which is deeper and which has new technology—to depend on regulations that were first formulated in the year when I was born. They are out of date. They need to be renewed and improved and that is why the Health and Safety Executive has done so.
I have been very generous in giving way and I heard what Mr. Deputy Speaker said about the importance of making progress.
It was right for the Health and Safety Executive and the Commission to ignore the attempts that were made to maintain a legislative framework that was more suited to life about 30 years ago. I was astonished by the attitude of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. After all, the work of the commission and executive, which the Labour party set up when it was in government, has been to modernise health and safety legislation, replacing prescriptive regulations with modern target-setting regulations and approved codes of practice. They are doing that in the mining industry, yet Opposition Members attack the Health and Safety Commission for doing precisely what the Labour Government set it up to achieve.
Does the Minister understand that we are not talking about bureaucratic neatness? Procedures that might be successful on the surface in other industries and have been spread, rightly, by the Health and Safety Executive and people involved in safety are welcome. However, as somebody who claims to be a Conservative, the Minister ought to be able to see some merit in leaving alone a system that is the safest in the world. Why does he want to change it?
Because the Health and Safety Commission, a tripartite body set up by a Labour Government, has recommended that, in its view, it is necessary to make changes in order to improve safety in the mines. It would be an irresponsible Minister who ignored that and it is an irresponsible Opposition who seek to frustrate that process.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras talks about practicalities. What will the regulations do? MASHAM—the management and administration of safety and health at mines—will require each mine to have a management structure that is suitable for its circumstances, and the circumstances vary between mines. The previous legislation, so beloved of the hon. Gentleman, did not even require mines to have a developed management structure. A mine must have sufficient properly qualified and competent managers and every one of them must give precedence to health, safety and welfare over all other duties. How can the hon. Gentleman be against that?
The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) was quick to say to the newspapers at the end of August that there is a conflict between productivity and safety. Does he not realise that an efficient mine is a safe mine and that safety demands efficiency in production? Does he not realise that MASHAM integrates responsibility for production and safety at every level far more securely than ever before?
Is not the Minister aware that in countries where regulations of that character are in operation safety levels are much lower than in the United Kingdom and accident levels are much higher? Why change something that is seen to be working effectively? Why give instructions to the HSE to come up with regulations that may be internationally compatible, but which do not necessarily provide us with any greater safety than at present?
I am not aware of any such instructions. The hon. Gentleman should know that the Health and Safety Executive began in 1983 the process of modernising the health and safety legislation for mines. The hon. Gentleman has not answered the point, which is that everyone involved in the management of mines under these regulations will have a specific duty for safety. MASHAM strengthens the requirements for thorough supervision of everyone in all areas of the mine below ground.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras mentioned that there are more accidents away from the coal face than at the coal face. He was right. For the first time, these regulations require fully adequate arrangements to be made for the supervision of workers away from the coal face where those accidents occur. I listened in disbelief as the hon. Gentleman sought to argue against them. The regulations require all parts of the mine below ground to be divided into suitable clearly defined districts of a size that allows adequate inspection. MASHAM allows the functions of supervision and inspection to be carried out by the same person or by different people and—
The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that allowing supervision and inspection to be carried out by different people is a bad thing. There may be good reasons to prevent one person from performing both roles if it means leaving workers unsupervised while carrying out statutory inspection duties. Is the hon. Gentleman honestly saying that it is safer to allow a situation where someone may be off supervising and is, therefore, not available for inspection? Of course it is not. Common sense demands that there should be flexibility and that is what the regulations provide.
The Minister seems to have missed the fact that in the role of deputy, supervision and inspection are combined. A deputy has the right and, in some cases, the statutory duty to stop a mine if safety is threatened. If supervision and inspection are separated—we will see a situation in which an inspector is subservient to a supervisor—the supervisor will be paid on a production bonus and it will not be in that supervisor's interest to stop production in the mine if safety is threatened, despite the representations of the inspector. That is the key issue in all these regulations. It is not the districts and the deputies, but the role of the deputy in safety and the statutory obligation placed on him, which the regulations would remove.
The hon. Gentleman sounds as if he believes that a deputy is not responsible to the management. What the hon. Gentleman does not take on board, and where the flaw in his argument lies, is the distinction between the duties of the inspector and those of the supervisor. Under the regulations, the supervisor will be under a duty to ensure that the paramount priority is health and safety in the mines.
Is the Minister aware that in 1988–89 the Select Committee on Energy considered the MASHAM regulations in a report on mining safety? A document, issued by British Coal, entitled "The Management of New Mines Working Party", refers to the separation of production and supervision. The working party was worried that it would not be able to get people to be district managers under the MASHAM regulations because they would be required to have a deputy's ticket. It stated:
This might counter some of the benefits of separating safety and production.
One man will therefore be responsible for production and one man for inspection, and inspection will be subservient to production.
The hon. Gentleman is merely repeating the same points. What he should recognise is that the regulations make everyone involved in production in the mine responsible for health and safety. The regulations do not preclude one man or woman being responsible for both functions.
The hon. Gentleman did not deal with my key point, which is that there may be very good reasons against one person performing both roles—for example, if that means leaving workers unsupervised. Surely he does not believe that such practice is sensible and should be required by statute. The key point is that both functions should be carried out by suitably qualified and competent people. Those responsible for inspection and supervision in a coal mine must hold the minimum qualification of a deputy.
I was reeling off the list of positive benefits of the MASHAM regulations, which the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras did not recognise. They improve provisions for the installation and maintenance of plant and equipment. They require managers to ensure that all plant and equipment is safely installed and commissioned. They strengthen the requirements for qualified—
The hon. Gentleman may say that, but we have had to have exemptions from the existing regulations in order to allow new equipment to come into the collieries.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras scoffs at the changes, but it seems to me that regulations that strengthen the requirement for qualified first-aiders—as these do—should be welcomed and not rubbished as they have been. The regulations double the ratio of first-aiders to employees underground.
The hon. Gentleman is always going on about contractors. Why did he miss out the fact that, to enable the mine manager to carry out his statutory duties, these regulations will, for the first time, require contractors to co-operate with him and comply with his instructions?
The regulations are an opportunity to ensure that those who work in mines benefit from a modern, target-setting health and safety system, which other industries have enjoyed during recent years. Those who wish to overturn the regulations seek to prevent the change which would result in miners being more safe and secure, and managers more accountable for safety. They seek to lock the industry into a 1950s time warp. I commend the regulations to the House.
The regulations have their roots in the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, which, as one who shared the responsibility of taking it through the House, I remember well. Any pride that I had in announcing what I thought and still think is, on the whole, a dramatic leap forward in the provision of health and safety in mines has been severely dented by our proceedings today. The Act was passed on a consensual basis, but not without a great deal of controversy between Government Departments. One of the controversies that dominated the proceedings was precisely the issue that we are discussing today—the procedure that is being used.
There are two matters before the House: the technical merits of the proposals and the way in which the House handles those proposals. I do not pretend to be sufficiently competent to comment on the technical merits—I shall leave that to other more experienced hon. Friends. However, significant numbers of people in my constituency who have had experience of the coal mining industry at all levels have expressed concern about the harmful effects of the regulations once they are implemented.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) was one of the participants in the debates in 1974. He rightly recalled the way in which on Second Reading and in Committee my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Employment, Michael Foot, said that he had received representations from all the mining unions about the way in which the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act might empower the body that was being set up to act in a manner that would weaken the prevailing health and safety standards.
To convey the flavour of the debate in Committee, I shall refer to the former Member for Hamilton, Alex Wilson, whom many of us will recall with affection and respect and who later became my Parliamentary Private Secretary. On behalf of the National Union of Mineworkers, he was persistent in expressing its anxiety that the powers that we were giving to the Health and Safety Commission to make regulations might be exercised in the way it seems to be exercised this afternoon—marking a regression from the prevailing standards, especially those embodied in the Mines and Quarries Act 1954. I can remember replying to him in Committee on 30 April 1974. I said:
I turn now to the basic point that I understand my hon. Friend to make, namely that while he accepts that the Bill is a good thing for all other industries, somehow it should not be applied to the coal mining industry because it might lead to a regression from the high standards which he thinks have been achieved.
I went on to say that there would be change
only after the fullest consultation when my hon. Friend's trade union sees and accepts in the course of the consultation ways and means of improving and strengthening the present provisions in a way which will satisfy both my hon. Friend and myself, and in a way that I should expect to see the industry proceed.
Later at that sitting, I quoted from the letter that Michael Foot sent to the NUM seeking to assuage the anxieties that it had expressed. He wrote to give assurances
on two matters which you regard as being of crucial importance. The first of these concerns the statutory standards of protection for mineworkers which are at present laid down in the Mines and Quarries Acts, and in their supporting regulations. As I explained, the Bill repeals none of this legislation. All of the present statutory standards will remain in force until replaced by equally or more effective provisions, which would be made under the wide regulation-making power contained in the Bill. The object of any such revised provisions would be to seek improvements—which indeed is the object of the Bill as a whole.
The letter continued:
All regulations under the new Act will be laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State in the usual way.
My right hon. Friend meant in the usual way that had applied up to the present time. "The usual way" is now rather different.
The Bill had the support of all parties in the House. It had been prepared by the former Secretary of State and we inherited it and made some minor changes that the previous Secretary of State accepted. The Opposition at that time was led by Lord Whitelaw, then the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border. On behalf of the Conservative party, he said:
I want to see whether I can do something to allay the anxieties of the hon. Member for Hamilton".
He went on to say that, when he was the Minister in a previous Government, he
heard all the representations then made by the National Union of Mineworkers. Like the Under-Secretary, I believe that these fears are—perhaps groundless is the wrong word—but I believe that they will be found in the long run to be ill founded … The hon. Member for Hamilton made another remark on which I hope I can give him some reassurance, if any words of mine can do that. He suggested that if this proposal in the Bill went through as it stood, there might at some time in the future be a Government—presumably he was thinking of a Conservative Government—who through this Bill might make an attack on the safety provisions in the mining industry.
My hon. Friends and I fear that that moment has arrived. The attack about which the Lord Whitelaw sought to give assurance is occurring today. Lord Whitelaw continued:
I wish to give the hon. Member assurance, as one who has in the past had considerable interest in safety, health and welfare, from the time of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Bill, that these matters have always been regarded entirely as non-political. They certainly would be in the future. I can only give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I certainly would be no party to doing anything which would in any way undermine the exceptionally good work of the mines inspectorate, the way in which the inspectorate has sought to do their best in the mining industry, and equally the strong support—which has been very important—which they received from the National Union of Mineworkers."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 30 April 1974; c. 7–10.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South will recall the manner in which that comment was welcomed as an assurance from the Government that we would proceed in such matters only with full support from those who work in the industry.
The Committee went on to establish assurances in a more specific and formal manner and, because of the debates that we had and the anxieties that were expressed, we wrote into section 1 of the 1974 Act that
the regulations, orders and other instruments in force under those enactments"—
were to be—
progressively replaced by a system of regulations and approved codes of practice operating in combination with the other provisions of this Part and designed to maintain or improve the standards of health, safety and welfare established by or under those enactments.
That was not a piece of parliamentary embroidery. Those words were deliberately chosen to reflect the views of the Government of the day and were fully supported by every party in the House—the changes would be only those that would maintain or improve prevailing safety conditions.
The Minister may say that the proposals meet precisely that desire, but that is in conflict with all the views that have been expressed by people who—unlike the hon. Gentleman and I—work or have worked in the coal industry. Interventions have come from the coalfields of Hendon; I prefer to speak from the coalfields of Yorkshire. I have not been a coal miner, but I am prepared to listen to those who are or have been miners. I only wish that the Government would do so. The Minister says that the Health and Safety Commission has produced the proposals, but my understanding is that the trade union representatives on the Health and Safety Commission have the gravest reservations.
I feel somewhat personally tarnished in the light of the work that I put into health and safety legislation and the assurances and commitments that we gave with the full support of the House. I am sure that Lord Whitelaw, if he has the opportunity to read our proceedings, will feel equally sad that there has been a resiling from the commitments that all of us gave. Today we face a prostitution of the powers that are contained in the 1974 Act. My hon. Friends and I are worried that the proposals are merely paving the path to privatisation.
I should have thought that the experience of Bilsthorpe would give the Minister cause to delay the proposals. I ask him to withdraw the regulations and to consult those whose jobs and livelihoods in the industry and whose families' well-being are at stake. The Minister should consult them and, if they share his view, we may take a different attitude. I very much doubt whether he will get support for the views which he has presented to the House today. I hope that he will take the regulations away and think again.
The House will have listened to the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Sir H. Walker) with great interest. He commands great respect in the House, although the conclusions of Conservative Members may differ from his. I apologise for the fact that I have a Select Committee meeting running at the present time. With the leave of the House, I hope to join the meeting shortly after I sit down. I hope that my apparent discourtesy will be understood.
I sometimes do not know who advises Ministers and Departments about their public relations and their presentation of policy. As a Government, we should have the best, rather than the worst, presentation. If there is anyone out there who is supposed to be like a bird sitting on the Minister's shoulder and telling him the best time at which and the best way in which to present policy, there must have been some dereliction of duty in this case.
The House rose on 27 July after one of the most difficult ever public relations presentations in the coal mining industry when, as we all know, 31 pits had been proposed for closure the previous October. The day after the House rose, the regulations were made and just over a week later they were presented to the House when Parliament had gone to the seaside for its summer break.
I tell the House and my hon. Friend the Minister, if he does not already know, that there are people outside who doubt the Government's commitment to a thriving and profitable coal industry. As my hon. Friend will know, the young bride said to her husband the day following her wedding, "Jock, I didnae ken." He replied, "Well, Maggie, you ken noo." I say to my hon. Friend, "Michael, you ken noo."
I accept that, as my hon. Friend will agree, the regulations are part of a general review of mines and quarries regulations which was put in hand by the Health and Safety Commission some years ago. There was no reason in common sense or in common humanity why the regulations could not have been laid before the House a week before it rose for the recess or a week after it returned. As it was, the worst possible interpretation was put on the timing by those outside who took an interest in the matter. I am anxious to hear my hon. Friend's explanation.
I have no bird sitting on my shoulder that I can blame. The regulations were not laid earlier because there was a change of ministerial responsibilities and, before I agreed to lay the regulations, I insisted that I had undertakings from the Health and Safety Commission that it would maintain and improve safety in mines. As a result of the delay arising from my insistence, it was not possible to lay the regulations until the end of the Session.
My hon. Friend asked why we did not wait until now to lay the regulations. It was the view of the Health and Safety Commission that the regulations should be in force by 1 October. I felt obliged, given the commission's view that the regulations were important from the point of view of safety, to act accordingly. I appreciate that that has caused criticism and difficulty. However, we expect people in mines to make safety their paramount consideration. The same should apply to Ministers.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his explanation.
There is a further difficulty. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, on which I serve under the excellent chairmanship of the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who is in his place waiting to make his contribution, has had no opportunity because of the timing to consider the regulations. We do not consider regulations on their merits; we consider whether they are intra vires of the parent statute or whether there are unusual uses of powers. It would have been helpful if the Committee could have had that opportunity. I do not wish to make the speech of the hon. Member for Bradford, South. He is the Chairman of the Committee and I shall let him elaborate on that point. Despite my hon. Friend's explanation, I think that, on a subject as emotional as mining safety, there was a little left to be desired in terms of timing and presentation.
Worse was to come. A couple of weeks after the regulations were laid, the Bilsthorpe colliery disaster occurred. It took place a couple of miles from my constituency boundary and that is why I have a particular interest in it. I see one or two hon. Members from neighbouring constituencies in their places today. It was one of the worst recent mining disasters and its reverberations are still being felt in north Nottinghamshire and beyond.
I believe that the regulations, which will require full supervision of everyone everywhere in the mines below ground, are beneficial. However, there is still deep uncertainty, and we had discussions about it this afternoon, about precisely what happened at Bilsthorpe and why. I suggest that it was unwise to plough on at that time with regulations that amend the regulations on safety and health in the mines without Parliament being able to debate them. That is my main point.
As the House can imagine and as happened today, the Government's political opponents, especially at local level, made big capital out of the fears that existed. Today, they made similarly heavy weather of the regulations. I make no criticism of that because as the Opposition it is their right and it is proper that they should do so even if, as I said in response to the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central, we may reach somewhat different conclusions on this side of the House.
Having criticised the timing of the regulations, I must say that I do not think that they are as harmful as has been suggested this afternoon. I listened to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). Although he said much, he did not really discuss the regulations themselves. I have listened carefully to the whole debate and I believe that that is a flaw in the Opposition's arguments so far.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that absolute duties, as a deputy had under the Mines and Quarries Act 1954, are stronger than the duties that arise under the new package, which are far less specific and are general? As a result of the strong and absolute duties under the 1954 Act, the deputy, with his combination of responsibilities for safety and supervision, was able to ensure that British pits were the safest in the world.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I was just going to come to that precise point. I accept that he is an expert in the industry. My reading of the regulations is that each mine must have a management structure with suitably qualified people who will give precedence to health, safety and welfare above all other duties. That must be a step forward and not a step back, despite what the hon. Gentleman says.
We have two large codes of practice. They are not flimsy documents; they are detailed and the duties are specific on safety, health and first aid—[Interruption.] Opposition Members may scoff. As I said, they are entitled to make the worst of these matters. Conservative Members are equally entitled to be positive about the proposals.
The lack of reduction of the powers of intervention by the inspector of mines is important. There is no diminution of his powers. He will continue to have all the powers originally given to him, or them, by the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act. That is where I would have disagreed with the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central.
Is not it true that, in the statutory instrument, the obligation on people to carry out statutory duties is qualified by the phrase, "so far as is practicable"? Does not that phrase have a legal definition in court actions for compensation, to the effect that an employer or owner who says that the cost is too high is justified in not applying those safety standards? Therefore, is not that a reduction in the standard from the absolute duty that care shall be provided?
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but I do not reach that conclusion when I read elsewhere in the regulations that there must be present everywhere and at all times someone suitably qualified whose paramount duty is to ensure that safety is the first consideration.
The hon. Gentleman might not be aware that at present any district underground must have a suitably trained person—in this case a deputy—who is capable of and trained in taking readings for levels of gas. Under the regulations, it will be apparent that whole districts will be without a trained person in charge who is capable of and trained in taking readings for gas.
I was not aware of that. I am still not sure that will be the case, but that will be for the Minister to argue. I cannot deal precisely with that point.
Having read the regulations, and despite my criticism of the timing, I do not see that they represent a diminution in standards of safety in mines. If I thought that they did—I hope that the Opposition will give me credit for this in view of my interest in the coal mining industry—I would not not vote for them at any price. I am not a party hack. I am a party man, but I am also a man who looks after his constituents, who, in this case, are those in the mining communities of north Nottinghamshire.
My concern has been with timing and the method of introduction, which, like so much that has happened to the coal mining industry in the past year, has left much to be desired. I wish that the Government could have found a more sensible way of introducing the regulations, and had been a little more sensitive about their timing.
Order. In the two hours available for the rest of the debate, no fewer than nine hon. Members, including Front Benchers, hope to catch my eye. If hon. Members co-operate by making short speeches, all hon. Members might be successful.
I shall endeavour to be brief.
The hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) addressed the issue of timing. I hope that he will accept that timing is extremely important and that it is not only a matter of cynicism; it is a matter of mismanagement and incompetence, although it could be interpreted as cynicism. Two particular points of timing will not be lost even on people with no real connection with the mining industry: first, major changes in working practices underground were published the week after the House rose for the summer recess and were implemented before we had an opportunity to debate them; and, secondly, in the Queen's Speech next month the Government will introduce measures for the privatisation of the coal industry. Those factors will not be lost on anyone. What is the prime motivation for those changes? Can we be absolutely sure that it is simply a totally objective and right moment to introduce new working practices that affect the operation of mines? I will not follow the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who expressed his view on that in his inimitable style. The Minister cannot be surprised that people make deductions from that coincidence of timing.
Another matter of some concern is that, within the same period, we had the Bilsthorpe colliery disaster. As one who is not as well informed or as closely involved as other hon. Members, I felt that the safety inspectors were remarkably quick to deduce that the bolting mechanism was not the source of the problem. I do not question their integrity and am not in any position to comment on them, but the speed with which they made their statement demonstrated one thing clearly to me, if I had not known it already: there clearly is great concern about the practice among the people who work underground. That concern cannot lightly be put aside. It is not right to introduce measures in which mineworkers—who are supposed to be protected by them—do not have confidence. That is a matter of extreme importance and it is one that we should take on board.
The specific point as I understand it—perhaps the key point—is the role of the deputy manager in determining the safe operation of the pit and his authority to stop the process if he believes that that is justified. First, it is apparent that deputy managers spend more of their time underground. Secondly, they are specifically charged with safety as their prime consideration.
Under the new regulations, it seems to me that the only person with authority to stop the process is the manager of the pit, who, in most cases, will not be underground. The only responsibility that any other operative has is to report a breach of safety if that occurs. One needs a much quicker line of response. That point—I am sorry that the Minister is not listening—seems to be an inherent sign of a change for the worse. Under the new regulations, the ability to halt the process because of a safety risk has been removed further from the process than was the case under the old regulations. I should like the Minister to answer that point at the end of the debate. Unless he can satisfy me that that is not the case, that example will be a clear indication of new regulations weakening existing safety standards.
I should have thought that it might be appropriate, if one were interested in strengthening regulations, to say that, at all times, there must be someone underground who has the authority to override the process for safety considerations. That would be an improvement on existing regulations.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I, too, shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.
Like many people, I spent 21 years working underground on the coal face. I was a fitter. Under the 1954 regulations, I had the power—under section 81 of the Mines and Quarries Act, which talks about machinery being free of patent defect—to stop any machinery that I did not think was operating properly. The hon. Gentleman is quite right: I would no longer have that power. At the time that I was working, the colliery manager could not override my decision, nor could the chairman of the British Coal Board at Hobart house, because I was carrying out my duties under the statute that was laid down in the House. If I were a fitter now and worked on the coal face, I would no longer have that power and could be overruled.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing a point from a period of specific personal knowledge.
I should like to take up a point that the Minister made. The point is not entirely surprising but is questionable. Let us keep the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers—NACODS—and the National Union of Mineworkers out of it, just to make it less sensitive. The Minister seemed to imply that NACODS' reservations about the regulations were entirely to do with its concern about its membership and its role as a trade union. That is unworthy of him. I do not think that it is right to suggest that a trade union with that degree of specialism is not capable of being persuaded—and needs to be persuaded if the new regulations are to work.
Even if the regulations are good in law, principle and practice, if the people who are to operate and benefit from them have no confidence in them, their morale will be adversely affected. No Minister should be satisfied with that as a way to advance safety and working in the mines. The Minister accuses the trade unions of being motivated only by the recruitment and retention of members. That invites the counter-argument that managers are, by definition, concerned only with production and profitability, which also gives rise to the possibility of compromise and conflict of interest.
It is essential that we strike the right balance in safety matters. Certainly, we want to allow people to run viable and profitable pits, but we want those pits to be run so that the safety of those who are expected to do the work at the most dangerous end of the job is not compromised. That is the responsibility of the Minister and it is the responsibility of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive, and it does not seem to me that they have achieved the degree of consensus that would justify the claim that this is the right time at which to introduce the present regulations.
I should like to draw attention to one or two good points in the regulations. In particular, it is essential that a pit manager should be allowed to manage only one pit, and it is good that that has been written into the provisions. It is important, too, that the pit manager should have the right to challenge the pit owner in the interests of safety. I have a slight reservation about that provision, however, because it is possible for the pit owner also to be the pit manager. Who would provide the element of intervention in such circumstances?
The Minister reminded us that the original regulations date back to 1908; that regulations have been introduced in the intervening period, in 1947 and 1974; and that we are talking about a process of continuous change. I do not think that any hon. Member is frightened of change or believes that all the regulations are wholly unacceptable and that there is not a case for modernising and updating the procedures. I hope that the Minister will recognise, however, that there are one or two factors that suggest that the regulations would weaken safety rather than strengthen it, which is crucial, and that his timing is extremely suspect. The Minister cannot proceed simply on the ground that he has a majority in the House and disregard the damaging effect of introducing safety regulations that do not have the confidence of those working in the industry. So far, he has failed to secure that confidence, and I urge him not to force the provisions through until he has won the industry over.
Many of those who are laymen when it comes to the technicalities of these complicated and important matters—that includes most people who will be following the debate as well as many taking part in it—will feel that my hon. Friend the Minister made a fair point when he said that the origin or provenance of the regulations was an expert body with an absolutely impeccable reputation and pedigree—the Health and Safety Commission and its Executive. I am glad, too, that my hon. Friend emphasised that the consideration of possible beneficial changes in mine safety regulations goes back a long way.
My hon. Friend reasonably suggested that, given the list of contributing members, the proposition that the Health and Safety Executive or Commission could in some way have been beguiled, infiltrated or corrupted by the influence of Ministers and Tory policy fades into nonentity the moment it is made. The Health and Safety Commission would have faced many resignations and would never have been able to present serious proposals to the Minister or the House if there were any sense in which it was the kept woman of a Tory Government or a Tory Cabinet. It was manifestly doing its own job in an effective and serious-minded way and, although these are highly controversial and delicate matters, it has produced the specific and agreed recommendations and ideas that we are debating today. My hon. Friend was more than reasonable in emphasising that.
I have listened with great interest to the debate, and with even greater interest to the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Sir H. Walker)—at whose feet I have sat in Committee and with whom I have debated—and, in doing so, have picked up nuances and detailed ideas about and insights into industry that I could have picked up nowhere else. It seems to me—again, as a layman—that the Opposition are perhaps trying to prove too much by suggesting that everything that is in place now has the quality of the law of the Medes and the Persians and should not be interfered with, touched, modified or improved in any way. Opposition Members swing from that proposition—which is not a convincing one—to the proposition that everything that we are considering today is poison in every root and branch. Both propositions are unacceptable.
Safety regulations have to be changed, improved and modernised—following a lengthy period of consideration, consultation, submission and debate—as part of the evolution and modernisation of any industry. I am thinking in particular of the railways and of the air transport industry, in which changes have had to be made to take account of considerations of passenger time and of new machinery and processes.
I remember some of the features of the old safety regulations in the days when steam operated on the railways. With the fundamental changes in the mechanical processes by which the railways operate, all that has had to go. Similarly, today's pits are unrecognisable. I speak with some experience of the machinery used and the activities that take place in the Selby complex of mines. It seems eminently reasonable to me that there should be some attempt to move with the times and that safety procedures should be updated by a serious professional body such as the HSE and its Commission. I commend my hon. Friend the Minister for placing so much emphasis on the origin and provenance of the regulations.
My hon. Friend will understand, however, that changes can give rise to anxiety, especially among ordinary rank-and-file miners and individuals engaged in coal mining, although not necessarily at the coal face— especially given that they are bombarded with allegations of nefarious intent or distorted purpose, which, for people engaged in the day-to-day activities at the coal face, can be disturbing and unnerving.
I have received detailed representations from a number of my constituents who work in or near the Selby complex of mines. I hope that my hon. Friend will find time to address himself once more to the delicate subject of the possibility, at least, of a division of responsibility. I want to quote from a quite articulate letter from a NACODS official in my constituency:
We also fail to see where the Health and Safety Executive"—
the official at least gives credit to where the idea originated—
have improved or bettered existing legislation by splitting the dual duties of pit inspection from supervision, which today are undertaken by the single pit deputy, replacing this with, first, a person doing inspections and, secondly, a command supervisor.
The official goes on to make this trenchant and important point:
By doing this, they are confusing who has total and absolute control should an emergency occur.
I should like my hon. Friend to address himself to what would happen in the very rare and extremely undesirable event of a real underground emergency. We all know that different voices giving different orders from different quarters can be desperately hazardous and can result in a failure to move whatever action is necessary at that moment in a precisely defined and necessarily correct direction.
I know that my hon. Friend will be able to reassure me to some extent by referring to the fact that the regulations allow the functions of supervision and inspection to be carried out by the same person or by different people; they introduce the dual option. It is clearly most important that that function, whether dual or in a single hand, should be carried out by qualified and competent people. Will my hon. Friend assure me that full thought has been given to the hazard that might arise, especially in an emergency, if the option for a dual hat between supervision and inspection applies in a pit?
A constituent goes so far to reinforce the idea of the single deputy as to point out that, at present, an identified person, a named individual, has immediate charge of men and operations and concern consequently arises over any step in the direction of less identity, more diffuse responsibility and less capacity to be able to pinpoint the person who carries the can.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is an expert in this area and that he will have been briefed adequately by the Health and Safety Executive. It must have had good reason for giving the option of abandoning the single mandate and moving to the possible option of locating responsibility for supervision and inspection under different heads. If he can reassure us on that point and refer back to the considered view of the executive and why it is confident that it is for the best, I and my constituents who have made representations to me would be much reassured and would believe that the regulations stand a better chance of gaining acceptance and confidence in the mining industry.
The right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) has done the House a service because his question to the Minister provided reason for the Minister's apology. The National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers certainly should receive an apology from the Minister for his unworthy comments. The association's objection stemmed from the point that the right hon. Member for Selby put to the Minister. I look forward to hearing the Minister's explanation because during the months of consultation that very point has been at the heart of NACODS' rejection of the proposals.
There are few pits now and there may be fewer still in a few months' time, but there will still be pits and there will be new ones and unmothballed ones when it is recognised that what has been done was foolish and that we should not lock away an important and fortunate national resource.
The regulations are designed for the time when pits have been privatised. Their purpose is to make the industry more appropriate for privatisation by weakening existing legislation, which is why NACODS and most people who have an interest in the industry oppose them. The safety priority is being weakened. Yes, a manager will have to run a pit effectively and safely, but the Minister did not point out the qualification
so far as is practicable",
and that will cover an enormous amount.
The same attitude is not evident among Tories as when Winston Churchill spoke about the need for statutory qualified underground officials. The regulations provide for supervisors, who, as the right hon. Member for Selby pointed out, will not have the traditional statutory powers that have saved untold numbers of lives in pits since the law was made.
Representatives of the South African mining industry are visiting London today; indeed, one of them has been in this building. They are here to look at our safety arrangements for mines because they recognise the need to promote mine safety in their country. What are they to take back with them—the practices and regulations that hitherto applied, or this wretched, shabby lot that we are debating today? I know what advice any responsible person would give them, and I hope that it is the advice that NACODS is giving.
A few years ago it was suggested that colliery deputies should be fully included in the management structure of the coal industry, solely oriented within the production system. NACODS quite properly said that its obligations to safety meant that it could not accept that other function because safety had to be paramount. Of course there must be regard for production, and underground officials played a significant part in the immense achievement of increasing productivity by 36 per cent. in the last year. They did so on the understanding that precedents for safety would remain and that safety would continue to be their prime duty. That duty is weakened by the regulations and it is unwise and wrong for the overriding priority for safety in the mining industry to be removed, as it will be when the underground supervisor will have to report a hazard rather than respond to it.
The regulations are not only defective in character but, as the Minister confessed, have been furtively introduced. Interestingly, they are statutory instrument No. 1987 and were laid with orders such as No. 1930 and No. 1950, suggesting quite a substantial delay, when they could have been introduced, despite the ministerial changes, before the House rose for the recess. It is sad that the matter should have been so delayed, but it shows the arrogance of office to which Shakespeare referred.
British Coal, too, deserves criticism. Those responsible at Hobart house showed their disdain for Parliament when they decided that the regulations should be implemented on 1 October—before the House resumed. I said in the House last Monday that British Coal had tried to deny my suggestion that it was contemptuous of Parliament in 1989. I still think that it was contemptuous of Parliament in 1989, but it has certainly been contemptuous of Parliament in 1993, and it may have been so with the approval and admiration of the Minister because I do not believe that it would have decided to announce the implementation early in August if it had not first consulted the Department. British Coal and Ministers have revealed their contempt for Parliament and for history.
Hon. Members who represent the older coalfields—Durham, Wales, Scotland, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Northumberland—will be aware of the many traces of the past in their constituencies. There are memorials on which there are lists of names of hundreds of people who died in colliery catastrophes. There will be another list of names tonight—of hon. Members who either could not come into the Chamber to listen to a debate on matters of life and death, of hon. Members who popped in and out, or of hon. Members who allowed themselves to be beguiled into the Government Lobby.
The number of people who died in major tragedies was dwarfed by the number of men, and often children, who died in ones and twos in days when it was not even thought necessary to have inquests when people were killed down a pit. Reaction in the House and outside to those horrors led to the introduction of the regulations that are now being scrapped. The Minister fails to understand—I wish that his colleague, the Minister for Energy, was here—that the arguments that the Government are now advancing to defend their regulations were used in Parliament and outside to oppose the safety regulations 90 or 100 years ago.
I heard the Minister say on television the other day that there had been long periods of consultation about the regulations—consultation with the miners, British Coal and the Health and Safety Executive. It is true that the consultations lasted for some years, but no one appeared to advise the Minister that what he and his colleagues were doing was preposterous. The Minister and his colleagues have been saying that the arrangements under the order would be a vast improvement: there would not be one man with a statutory responsibility for safety—the colliery deputy—because everyone would have responsibility. That was the very argument used against the appointment of the deputy with a statutory obligation.
I wish that Ministers did not have such contempt for history. They are very good at accountancy, making money and beguiling the electorate with the assistance of a servile press which may not even report our argument tonight, but they do not understand the mining industry, which they are now embarrassing, or the country, which they are misruling.
No, I am not, but I shall not detain the House for too long.
I have been a Member of Parliament for a long time. I have met some great people, many who may become great, many more who think that they will be great and some who think that they are great but are not. One man who was a considerable source of inspiration to me, although he never claimed to be great, and for whom I had enormous respect was my father, a colliery deputy. He was not an especially articulate man, but he was very honest. Being brought up in his home, I learnt certain values. I learnt why he was respected in our community. He was not a boss's man, but he was concerned about production and believed that a man should have a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. He was still popular because his men, of whom there were many in those days, knew that he was skilled in the ways of the mine and that he was honest and would not allow corners to be cut or their lives to be put at risk.
In the past, the role of the honest colliery deputy was important and, but for the shysters on the Government Benches who are giving away the mining industry, it would be important in the future.
I should have thought that the word "shysters" as applied collectively to the current Administration was entirely appropriate. However, I do not wish to incur your disapproval in any way, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so if I can replace the word "shysters" with the words "this group of venal men", I am happy to do so. [HON. MEMBERS: "And women."] And women, although the former right hon. Member for Finchley has departed.
The serious point is that men such as my father saved many lives. They were able to do so because of their experience and knowledge of the pit and because of their statutory capacity. That capacity placed a considerable duty on their shoulders but that duty is to be taken away. Without the capacity to fulfil a statutory regulation, not even the most honest supervisor will be able to act to save lives.
The right hon. Member for Selby was right to ask about safety and responsibility. The arrangements will weaken the capacity which has served our industry well, which has made it safe and which has made it a model to which mining industries in other parts of the world can turn to ensure that they have safe arrangements.
The regulations are intended to assist privatisation and profit. [Interruption.] It is no good the Minister shaking his head because we know that the regulations are fitting the industry for the marketplace and the sale room. If that is not so, why did the Minister with responsibility for coal last Wednesday shelter behind the sub judice rule, which apparently does not apply today, and refuse to answer my request for a guarantee that a foreign company, which does not have a good safety record, would not be allowed to buy parts of the British mining industry?
One such company has received 1,474 citations from the American safety inspectorate regarding faults that it had not put right but of which it had been notified over seven or eight years. Are the Government going to allow companies with such records to take over our mining industry? If they do, those companies will do what they like and will shelter behind the phrase
so far as is practicable
which the Minister has provided for them.
Why did the Minister not explain what
so far as is practicable
meant? Does he acknowledge that having such words at the heart of the regulations compels us to ask questions? As I do not believe that the Minister is capable of answering our questions, I trust that I and my colleagues will be joined in the Division by many hon. Members from the smaller parties. I regret that hon. Members from Ulster are not present; they claim to be part of the United Kingdom, so I hope that none of them will join the Government in the
Lobby tonight. If they have an obligation to the rest of the United Kingdom, they should join us. In addition to my colleagues and those in the smaller parties, I hope that the Conservatives who have a conscience and those with constituency obligations to the coalfields will join us because we are sure that our cause is right.
I am sure that hon. Members will not mind if I begin by sending the House's condolences to the wife of David Shelton, aged 31, who was a constituent of mine. He was killed in the Bilsthorpe disaster and lived in Blyth. The disaster has been mentioned many times, but I emphasise the fact that the inquiry was far from satisfactory and I hope that the demands for a further inquiry will be met.
The regulations, which affect safety standards, are clearly related to the privatisation of the industry. There is a strange parallel with the privatisation of prisons because both privatisations involve a strong safety element. Let us consider how the Government approached the privatisation of a part of the prison service. They let Group 4 take control of transferring prisoners to and from the courts. What happened? The people who took on that task did not know a great deal about the job and were spread over the front pages of the newspapers because of their lack of experience in handling prisoners. Indeed, for a while, they became a laughing stock.
The proposals to sell the pits offer a parallel. Private enterprise is to be put in charge of the pits, and the new owners will remove nearly all the safety regulations and run them for their own profit. The prisons were also softened up for privatisation.
The two industries are parallel in the sense that very few people have been in prison and very few have been down a coal mine. The Government, or the Department of Trade and Industry, have consistently reduced the number of prison officers and refused to listen to their good advice. There have been more prison riots, more disturbances and more problems because the Government refused to listen to the people who work at the pit face in the prisons; exactly the same will happen at the pit face down the mines. Very few people have ever been down a coal mine, including Members of Parliament, civil servants or those who live in the neighbourhood, and very few know about the safety standards. How many hon. Members realise what it is like to crawl 200 yds on one's hands and knees in a seam not much higher than a kitchen table, banging one's head every two yards, surrounded by nothing but thick dust and filth, with no light except that from the lamp on one's helmet, and a horrendous coal cutter four or five feet in diameter going at 2,000 revs a minute not two feet from one's hands or face, chopping off coal a tonne at a time?
Men have to work in those horrendous conditions, and all the public have ever seen of them is a film on television. I am a little critical of some of my hon. Friends, many of whom have said that they worked in the pit for 20 or 30 years. Over that time they seem to have become used to those conditions, not realising how revolting such conditions are to the average member of the public, and to the average workman in any other industry. I have never worked down the pit, but my father was a miner, and many years ago I found out that there are no toilets down a coal mine. Howe many people know that? The miners have to use a shovel for a chamberpot.
There is a saying in the pit that miners, to use biblical terms, "shit on a shovel." They use coal dust for their toilet paper, because there is nowhere to wash their hands. The Minister grins and laughs, and looks surprised. He does not know about that, yet he is the Minister introducing what purport to be health and safety regulations. What sort of health regulations can there be when there are no toilets down the coal mines, and nowhere for a man to wash his hands before he eats his sandwiches during his break? He simply has to throw what is on the shovel on to the outbye and let the roof fall in on it. He cannot wash until he gets to the surface and the pithead baths and showers, perhaps three hours later. That is what health and safety is about.
There are also pneumoconiosis and emphysema. The House resisted the idea of paying compensation, and I am sorry that the previous occupant of the Chair, Mr. Lofthouse, is no longer in the Chamber, because he did so much for miners' health in that connection. He devoted his life to that cause.
Everyone with relatives in the coal industry knows how many men are carried out of the pit to the hospital. In Bassetlaw we managed to get a new hospital simply because while I was taking a health Minister round the hospital to show him why we needed a new one a man was brought out of the pit on a stretcher covered in blood and filth and there was nowhere to treat him properly. That is what the mining industry is about.
Mining is about foul air, too. Murderers, rapists and bank robbers serving long sentences wreck prisons and smash up their showers and toilets in some kind of protest, and people say, "We must stop slopping out." There is no slopping out down the pit. Below people's feet in my constituency, in south Yorkshire and north Nottinghamshire, there are men fighting for their jobs, fighting for the right to work like animals, while prisoners rioting above the ground get far more attention than the miners have ever had.
Who will be in charge of implementing the safety regulations? The manager. What an excuse! There is not even a Judge Tumim, the prison inspector who mildly complains that at the Wolds the prisoners stay in bed until half-past 10 with the curtains drawn because the sun would get in their eyes and wake them up. He is the inspector of prisons, and I am glad that he is, but where is the inspector of mines? Where is the new inspector who will go round every coal mine and ask why there is nowhere for the men to wash their hands?
The conditions are primitive. We are arguing about technicalities instead of establishing the day-to-day decencies that exist in every other industry. One of my hon. Friends referred to what Winston Churchill said in 1932. That was before I was born, but my dad was in prison—sorry, I mean, down the mine—then. He probably would have been better off in prison than down the mine even in those days. Winston Churchill said that
special circumstances existed to differentiate coalminers from … many other industries … Others have spoken of the heat of the mine, the danger of firedamp, of the cramped position, of the muscular exertion of the miner, at work in the galleries perhaps a mile under the ground. I select the single fact of deprivation of light. That alone is enough to justify Parliament in directing upon the industry of coalmining a specially severe scrutiny and introducing regulations of a different character from those elsewhere.
What has happened since 1932? The pits are deeper, hotter and more humid. Extraction rates have increased, and the heavy-duty machinery turns the coal out faster. Men are working more dangerous machinery in more cramped conditions, and they are working longer shifts. In longer shifts men get tired. We can increase the machinery; we can increase the productivity; we cannot increase human strength and endurance.
The National Union of Mineworkers has proved the dangers time after time. On 17 June last year a development worker employed by a private contracting firm was killed at the end of his shift because he was tired. On 10 March this year a washery plant manager was drawn between the drive wheels of a barrel washer. He had been working 12-hour shifts without a break for a significant period. On 19 March this year a service engineer was killed when he was hit by two runaway mine cars when he was walking out of the pit at the end of his shift. It is no coincidence that accidents occur when a substantial proportion of employees have worked for more than 48 hours that week—far longer than normal.
What sort of life will people living near the pits have when we have ultra-productivity and seven-day working? Every time a lorry backs up at a pit it sounds a klaxon horn, for safety reasons. Klaxon horns will be sounding all through Saturday night, and all through Sunday. What about people living within 100 yds of a pit? The people in charge will not bother about the heavy lorries, the pollution, the smoke and the dust.
Many a true word is spoken in jest, but the klaxon is a necessary safety precaution, and people who live near the pits accept that. They put up with the noise from Monday to Thursday, although they sometimes complain that such work should not be done at night. People living in the neighbourhood of a pit put up with an enormous amount of inconvenience. They suffer because they know that their jobs are at stake, and that when the pit dies they will have no future left. That is why miners put up with those working conditions, for the sake of their kids and of their future.
When we privatise the prisons it seems that those involved can have whatever they like. When the Wolds opened people said what a wonderful prison it was because every prisoner would be able to have a clean pair of underpants every day. But we cannot find out how much that costs, who is making a profit and who is paying for it. Things are vastly different when it comes to selling off the pits.
Since privatisation began, and we have done away with so many rules and regulations, one thing has stood out a mile: Lloyd's, the insurance company, has damn near gone bust. For many years Lloyd's made a massive profit, but then we suddenly had ferries going down, with the bow doors being left open because the turnround time had been speeded up when the ferries were privatised. There was the King's Cross fire, because there was no time to consider the underground safety regulations. There are football disasters too, and disasters such as that on the Piper Alpha rig have brought Lloyd's to its knees.
There will be more disasters in the mines. Driven by the great push for more and more productivity, people will take short cuts, and the insurance companies will have to pay. There is no reason for safety standards to be changed now, and putting implementation into the hands of managers who are under pressure to deliver productivity is a recipe for disaster.
I am the first member of the mining profession to be called to speak in this debate. Although I hesitate to compete with some of my colleagues who intervened earlier and referred to their 20 years' and 21 years' experience of the industry, I can claim to have 37 years' experience of the industry, particularly on the engineering side on which I want to concentrate. That was my forte and discipline. I spent time as an electrician in the mines and then as an engineer. I had some responsibility for supervising some of my colleagues' contemporaries in the mines in which I worked.
The important issue in the debate relates to the changes to the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 as a result of the new regulations. I worked in the industry from 1944 and, even before the 1954 Act, the priority was safety. Acts of Parliament and regulations have primarily been concerned with safety. Safety was enshrined in the 1954 Act.
The new regulations change the fundamental principle, which has already been referred to, that a workman in a mine is responsible for his own safety. In certain circumstances, he could refuse to work in a part of the mine that he thought was unsafe. A miner who took that decision was never criticised and action was generally taken to improve the situation so that the workman felt confident.
The new regulations make significant changes. There are seven pages of changes to the 1954 Act and the regulations contain 25 other changes and four modifications. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) referred specifically to the role of deputies. I will not follow that line, because my hon. Friend made an excellent presentation on behalf of the union members whom he represents. However, he referred to an aspect on which I want to concentrate because it is fundamental to the changes proposed by the regulations and is critical for the mines. That aspect relates to the interpretation in paragraph 2(1) which states:
In these regulations, unless the context otherwise requires … 'maintained' with respect to plant and equipment means maintained in relation to any matter which it is reasonably foreseeable will adversely affect the health and safety of any person in an efficient state, in efficient working order and in good repair;
The 1954 Act demanded that plant and equipment must be in an efficient state, in efficient working order and in good repair. That is a very important difference.
I want now to refer to my experience as an electrician in the mines, because it reflects the protection of the 1954 Act and what it did for me. At four o'clock one morning, a machine at a coal face for which I was responsible as an electrician was damaged. Its flexible cable contained a tear about 18in long—I cannot say what that is in metric terms. I believed that that tear was dangerous and that it could cause a serious accident, if not an explosion. I decided to remove the power from the machine and the cable was changed. The overman in charge of production and the under-manager on the shift were not very happy about that.
I left the mine at about 8 am and went home to bed to get some sleep. I received a message to return to the mine to have an interview with the manager. The pit manager happened to be a lay Methodist preacher. When I went to his office, I saw before me a piece of paper which was my notice. I was being fired. Everything on the paper was filled in except the signature. As a young married man with two children, I found that rather frightening.
I sat down and the pit manager asked me for an explanation. I explained why I had done what I did. Happily, a very good engineer defended me. He said that I had complied with the 1954 Act specifically all the way down the line. He said that he would not support any proposition to have me fired. Eventually, the manager withdrew the piece of paper. It was obviously a threat. The important point was that the 1954 Act protected me on that occasion.
so far as is practicable
occurs in paragraphs 10, 11, 12 and 13 of the regulations. I believe that that phrase is open to misinterpretation and abuse. I should have thought that the people in British Coal, as they are the people in the industry, would consider that phrase very carefully.
However, many hon. Members have received a copy of a document from British Coal today entitled "The Management and Administration of Safety and Health at Mines Regulations 1993", which was issued for this debate. The section relating to the appointment of a manager states:
In accordance with Regulation 9(3) of the 1993 Regulations you shall so far as is practicable:—
and there are then subsections (a) to (d) which are followed by 4(a) to (g) and the rest which all refer to
as far as is practicable.
That expression does not appear in the 1954 Act.
I fully understand. I do not know how many hours the Minister has spent down a mine. It cannot be too many—if any. The difference between the 1954 Act and the current changes relates to the statutory responsibility of everyone in the mining industry from the manager to the young boy who has just joined the industry. That is what is important. Everything will now be discretionary. "As is practicable" can mean anything to anyone. If I were still an engineer in the industry, I should consider the phrase a defence, and I would manage to use it successfully.
Is not the crucial underlying legal position that if someone is injured and goes to court to claim compensation the employer can use the defence that it was not practicable to do something because it was too costly? Behind the phrase
so far as is practicable
lies the justification of expenditure which will, in effect, provide an argument for the employer to say, "It was far too costly and I couldn't therefore afford it." Therefore, compensation need not be paid. This is a cost-cutting measure and that is the essential application of the phrase.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Such situations will certainly arise. However, having worked in the industry, I am concerned about how the regulations apply in respect of ventilation, the safety of mining equipment and the mechanical and electrical side of the industry. How do they affect roof supports and a range of other issues involved in the industry?
There is a loophole which I am sure many people in British Coal will be concerned about at colliery management level. However, they may not be so concerned about it at Hobart house, because it depends what is going to happen when the mines are privatised.
I also regret the demise of the mining qualifications board. That body was highly respected in the industry. It set and applied high standards. It appears that the Health and Safety Executive has recently given itself power to approve qualifications instead of the board. I do not know what that move means in respect of the level of qualifications that will be demanded in any level of management in the industry. It seems that we are moving into an area in respect of which the House will have no opportunity to challenge what the HSE does. At the moment, we can mount such challenges through the Minister. In other words, that is a step backwards.
I am also concerned about the Coal and Other Mines (Mechanics and Electricians) Regulations 1965. Colleagues who lived by those previous regulations, as I did, will also be concerned that significant changes will apparently take place. Under the regulations, the mechanic or electrician in charge of a mine must have a certificate if there are more than 75 prime movers in that mine. I do not know what that will mean in the context of the new propositions. He must also be at least 25 years old. Again, I do not know what that will mean in the context of the new propositions.
After studying the changes, it is obvious that responsibility for safety and health in British mines has been shifted from the Government—the Department of Trade and Industry or the Department of Employment—to an executive organisation that is not answerable to Parliament. As my colleagues have mentioned, there is a lead-in for the Government's privatisation programme. I also envisage complex legal issues being raised because of the rather loose wording of the regulations. Of course, the only beneficiaries will be lawyers.
I am sure that hon. Members who travel frequently would not like to see any detrimental changes in the regulations governing the qualifications and standards of airline pilots or ships' captains. I do not want to see detrimental changes in the regulations governing coal mining. The regulations are detrimental and a step backward.
The Minister shakes his head when listening to hon. Members with many years' experience of underground mining. I worked underground for more than 20 years, and for 15 years on the coal face. I wonder whether the Minister would like to tell the House and the country how many years' experience he has had of health and safety underground. What does he know about working underground, save from reading a brief that somebody in his Department has put together for him? Has it struck him that no hon. Member has supported what he is doing? Only two Conservative Members have spoken about this matter, and both were critical. One said that in no circumstances would he support the regulations. The other one was not quite sure; he wanted some assurances. Unfortunately, neither hon. Gentleman is present.
The right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) seeks assurances. Let me remind him that several Conservative Members sought and were given assurances in March last year, when the Government brought forward a White Paper. We know what happened to those assurances. Undoubtedly, it will be exposed in tomorrow's debate on the coal industry.
The way in which the regulations were laid before Parliament is a total disgrace. The Government conveniently waited until the House was in recess and, on 6 August, presented this statutory instrument which effectively wipes out the Mines and Quarries Act 1954. That instrument came into force on 1 October, before the House resumed. It is clear that the Government had no intention of allowing debate on this very important matter. It is despicable that the Government should use such methods to repeal important mine safety regulations. It is typical of the Government's underhand approach that they should sneak through changes during the recess. That shows the Government's contempt for democracy and for Parliament and its procedures.
Together with last week's announcement about abolishing the 1908 legislation, we now have the deregulation of mine safety and the extension of working hours for our miners. That will be a recipe for disaster. Hon. Members must make no mistake about it; the regulations are being put in place for one reason only and that is to pave the way for privatisation. That will create in our mines conditions that turn back the clock more than 100 years.
Like many Opposition Members, my hon. Friend has a keen interest in, and a great knowledge of, the history of legislation covering the coal mining industry. Does he accept that, in the past, it was always the miners and their supporters who eventually managed to obtain improvements in legislation and that this is the first ever coal mining legislation which does not have the support of miners and their supporters?
I certainly concur with my hon. Friend. It is outrageous that such measures are being brought forward in this way. We have seen improvements, but, unfortunately, they have usually been brought about because of an accident or other serious occurrence underground. Many hon. Members have campaigned on issues relating to health and safety underground. The Government are intent on destroying the regulations that have protected miners for many years.
Deregulated mine safety and longer working hours will lead to more injuries and deaths underground in our coal mines. No longer will our miners have the protection of strict rules and regulations to defend them from an owner whose main motivation is cost saving and higher profits. No longer will they have the protection of the mine deputy, because that position will be systematically scrapped by the legislation. Instead, they will be at the behest of a manager, with only loose guidelines on health and safety, whose main motivation is higher profits.
The people who pay the price for this stupid legislation will be our miners and their families. In introducing this legislation, the Government have shown their total disregard for the safety of our mines and our mineworkers. We can be in no doubt about what coal industry the Government want—one that is fragmented, low cost and low on safety. It seems that the Government do not give tuppence for the men who risk their lives each and ever, day in our coal mines.
Like my colleagues, I shall speak against the mines administration package, not because we want to protect the deputies' union or any other union but because we regard the mines administration package as lowering safety standards in the mining industry. The Mines and Quarries Act 1954 is being replaced by a code of practice. We will have a code of practice which cannot be followed by the industry after the implementation of the regulations, whereas the 1954 Act placed statutory duties on the industry. For example, paragraph 96 of the code of practice on the management and administration of safety and health at mines states:
All parts of a mine should be inspected".
The code of practice does not say that the mine shall or must be inspected—it simply states that it should be inspected. Therefore, if there is an accident, or if a roof falls in a mine that has not been inspected, the injured workmen cannot claim compensation because no statutory right is placed on the manager or the owner of the mine to inspect the whole of the colliery. The code of practice will cause real problems in the industry because there will not be statutory back-up.
The Minister said that the Health and Safety Commission had produced the new regulations and the code of practice because of inadequacies in the existing legislation. However, no one has mentioned any of those inadequacies, and I have not seen a list of the inadequacies which led the commission to produce the code of practice.
In 1988–89, the Select Committee on Energy—sadly, it is now defunct—produced a report on mine safety which included references to the mines administration package. We took evidence from the Health and Safety Executive and the Health and Safety Commission. No information was given to the Select Committee about any inadequacies in the 1954 Act or other legislation. Therefore, I am sceptical about the Minister's assertion that there is anything wrong with the 1954 Act.
This summer, we saw the tragic accident at Bilsthorpe, which used roof bolting. If the Minister looked at the Select Committee's report on mine safety in the 1988–89 Session, he would see the recommendation that we made about roof bolting. We pointed out that roof bolting was not the safest method of support in a mine and that the best form of support would be arched girders.
About a year ago, I attended a meeting with British Coal in the North Yorkshire area. We were treated to a discussion on roof bolting and given a big heavy document on its pros and cons. At that meeting, I was surprised when British Coal said that it realised that geological pressures in mines do not come down from on top but from the sides. It took British Coal only about 100 years to work that out, but now it has the idea that it is okay to use roof bolts. The fact that roof bolting is a little cheaper is said to have nothing to do with it.
It is no surprise that the package has been introduced before a Bill to privatise the coal industry. We expect an announcement about such legislation in the Queen's Speech. When we look at all the measures relating to the coal industry that are before us at present, we see that the idea is simply to reduce safety standards, because safety costs money. It is fairly obvious that costs will be reduced before privatisation to make the coal industry a little more attractive to the private sector.
Safety regulations will be reduced as a result of repealing the 1908 Act, and the number of hours that a miner will be required to work underground will be increased to about 12. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) referred to accidents occurring at the end of shifts. Safety regulations will be reduced, working hours will be increased and—this is the most important part of the mines administration package—the statutory role of the colliery deputy will be removed. It is simply a matter of deregulating the industry to sell it. The Government want to sell to private mine owners who do not want to spend money on implementing safety measures.
All that will be done against the backdrop of a falling market. It seems absolutely crazy to introduce a mines administration package today when we will debate tomorrow the crisis in the coal industry—the further pit closures that we face as a result of the increased use of gas-fired generation. Why do not we wait to see what will happen to the industry before we jiggle with safety aspects? Why do not we wait to see what will happen to the industry in the future?
People in the industry, especially the electricity supply industry, are looking at 10 to 12 years of gas-fired generation, followed by the need to import gas. People at National Power have told me that they will bolt a coal gasifier to the back of a coal-fired power station to use coal again within 20 to 30 years. Collieries will be closed and, in 20, 30 or 40 years, coal will be imported, which will be put through gas-fired turbines. It is an absolutely crazy situation.
The major issue, which I referred to earlier in an intervention, is the role of the colliery deputy and the responsibility for safety. At present, the deputy has a statutory duty and statutory responsibilities with regard to safety in the mine. If there is an accident underground, the deputy has the power to stop production. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) referred to a situation in which he had done just that.
The deputy has statutory protection. An important point is that if the deputy has stopped production after an accident or a dangerous occurrence, the mine owner cannot sack, criticise or attack him for sticking to mine operating procedures. The deputy has always had that power.
The deputy has first-aid qualifications, especially with regard to the proper and carefully controlled use of morphine and other drugs underground. However, that responsibility will be handed to untrained supervisors and inspectors. The statutory requirement will be removed from deputies and handed to people who almost certainly will not have the same level of expertise or training.
I have referred to the measuring of gas levels, the taking of dust recordings and so on. The Government will do away with the statutory duty that is placed on the deputy at present. That will divide production and safety. At present, the deputy is protected. In the future, the supervisor will probably be responsible for production and the inspector will be responsible for safety. There will be a clash when the inspector wants to stop the mine because of a safety matter and the supervisor wants to keep it going. It has not gone unnoticed that, in the midlands, supervisors will be paid production bonuses. The supervisor will want to keep the colliery going to ensure that the financial element is satisifed, whereas the inspector will not have that specific power. That is where the whole mines administration package is weakened.
Earlier, I referred to a document from the new mines working party. The document was put to the Select Committee on Energy in 1989 when the then director of technical operations, Mr. Moses—sadly, he is no longer with us—accused me of having a stolen document because of a specific paragraph in it. The document states:
Possible sources for District Managers given the requirement for a Deputies ticket. This would tend to encourage the view that District Managers will have to have been safety inspectors."—
this is the crucial sentence—
This might counter some of the benefits of separating safety and production.
The working party expressed the view that the industry would not be able to appoint district managers who would be willing to circumvent the safety aspects of the mine. It was worried that all the members who were employed would be deputies and, because they had been trained as deputies, would put safety first. The document reflects the fact that the working party did not expect safety to be paramount.
In the future, supervisors will not have any responsibilities for safety. They will be there simply to increase production—to get as much out of the pit as possible. In the present market, the only way that anyone will make money from selling coal is to undercut all other contracts in the coal mining industry. The only way to do that is to stop spending on safety, cut back on wages and take the industry back to the pre-1946 days of the private owners when conditions underground were absolutely diabolical.
In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw, I can say yes, everyone in the industry wants major improvements, especially in sanitary facilities underground, which sadly do not exist. At the same time, we want safety to be paramount underground.
Will my hon. Friend accept that there were limited chemical toilet facilities in the mine where I worked? The problem was that they were at the shelf bottom and we worked 10 km away.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. In the House we so often hear people speaking from the experiences of 20 and 30 years ago. Perhaps sanitary conditions underground are not as bad as we have been led to believe.
The mines administration package will have other results which cause me great concern. I think that future legislation will remove existing health and safety regulations. The regulations introduced after the Aberfan disaster could well be under threat, as could those introduced after the Markham Main and Houghton Main disasters. Each of those disasters led to regulations that were designed to deal with the problems that had occurred. Those rules and laws are likely to be deregulated, as are those affected by the mines administration package.
It seems strange that although we have been dealing with the regulations since 1983 and with the various drafts since 1989—the Select Committee on Energy took evidence on such matters for a report in the 1989 Session —for some reason they were shoved before the House at the beginning of a recess. Why did that happen? It is absolutely diabolical.
In conclusion, the sum total of the regulations is that safety in mines will decrease.
I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) that the laying of the regulations was disgraceful. The Minister claimed that he wanted to be able to give the regulations some high quality scrutiny, which delayed them. His scrutiny came to an end six days after Parliament rose for the recess, when he was able to lay the regulations and, concomitant with that, they became law before the House came back, so there was no opportunity for us to discuss them before they came into operation. Moreover, those regulations repeal large sections of primary legislation which were passed in this place and have simply been removed by the arbitrary fiat of the Minister.
The regulations were also laid during the recess because before it there had been a little trouble with Tory Back Benchers over Maastricht and the coal mines. By leaving the recess for the Tories to forget about such things, the Minister could pretty well depend on a majority when they came back.
My hon. Friend has a lot of experience in the House. I am a relatively new Member. I have never seen a statutory instrument that is 28 pages long. Usually they are one sheet, or perhaps two or three at the outside. We are discussing a detailed 28-page statutory instrument. Does my hon. Friend want to comment on that?
My hon. Friend may be used to only tiny statutory instruments, but unfortunately many of the 3,500 statutory instruments per annum that the Government are laying—more than any other Parliament in our history—run to 40, 50 or 60 clauses and to as many pages.
This statutory instrument is important. The Minister knew that it was controversial, but as he is an arrogant, right-wing, goggle-eyed extremist, he does not care. That is the fact of the matter. He is on the right-wing fringe of the Tory party, so Parliament is not very important to him. The democratic processes are not important to him and, even if it had been 100 pages long, the statutory instrument would have received the same treatment. Due to their right-wing position, the Government believe that this legislation is a necessary preparation for privatisation. That is what Opposition Members believe.
The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which I chair and which meets every Tuesday, has not had the opportunity to examine the instrument because the Government insisted that if we wanted three hours to discuss it, it should be taken today instead of tomorrow, when we could have produced a report. The Committee's view is that there are defects in the instrument. We have asked the Department for some items of information, to which it has responded, but we cannot provide a response to the House because after all these years of consultation the Government insist that the statutory instrument must be discussed right now. It does not add up, except when one understands that they do not give a fig for the democratic processes.
If my hon. Friend had had the opportunity to scrutinise the statutory instrument, which, as he is well aware, was presented to the Government by the Health and Safety Executive, would he not have been somewhat lukewarm towards it, knowing that the organisation which advised on it was the same organisation that gave the dispensation for roof bolting to be carried out at Bilsthorpe colliery? When that organisation had to report on the reasons for the failure of the roof bolts, it stated it was because they were in "unsatisfactory ground", although it had given permission for them to be used in such ground.
We must continuously take into account the Health and Safety Executive and the Health and Safety Commission. That is why we should consider these statutory instruments—based on those bodies' recommendations—before the instruments come into operation, so that the weight of experience of working practices and the effect of existing legislation can be brought to bear instead of the academic approach of the HSE and the Commission.
As it happens, I was on the Committee of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work, etc. Bill. I and Alex Wilson —a working miner who had come to this place—were concerned to preserve the safety standards which had prevailed and to improve them. Between us, we managed to insert a phrase to ensure that delegated powers should be used only to maintain and improve existing standards as we were frightened that there would be an erosion of those standards. I very much regret that the amendment that I tabled, which would have required absolute provision to be retained, was not agreed by the Committee, because it would have made an important difference.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central mentioned the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969 and Aberfan. That strikes a chord. The House would not include the words
so far as is practicable
in that Act because it was a qualification. The Act states that mines and tips "shall be kept safe". The reason for the Act was that 90 little children were engulfed and the nation rose up in horror and said that it must never happen again. That has also happened when miners have been killed in serious mining accidents.
For years we have all said that we must have absolute safety standards and that pits and machinery shall be safe, but in this statutory instrument the regulations are all qualified. It is extraordinary. For example, clause 13 states:
It shall also be the duty of the manager of the mine, so far as is practicable … to make suitable arrangements for recording the names of all persons who go below ground".
Is that really to be a qualified duty? Should it not be a requirement that everyone who goes under ground is recorded and that someone knows where they are? If that is done "so far as is practicable" and anyone is injured, the owner of the mine will be able to say, "I'm terribly sorry, but it was too costly: we would have had to bring in an extra man." The mine owner would be able to say that the cost was too high and that he had conformed with the
statutory requirement. If that phrase were removed, there would be an absolute duty like that set out in section 14 of the Factories Act 1961 which states that dangerous machinery "shall be fenced". Under that legislation a worker had a good chance of compensation if his hand was chopped off. We do not want compensation for its own sake, but if the duties are absolute and something goes wrong, it is the worker and his family who suffer and compensation should be available.
These regulations reduce the level of claim in civil courts, so insurance premiums will come down. Insurance companies will feel more comfortable with this sort of legislation and, of course, private owners will, too. Their friends in Government are putting these regulations before us for that precise reason.
We shall vote against these regulations tonight. I hope that even one or two of those Tories who have been expressing such concern about mine safety will vote with us, as well as all the rag, tag and bobtail parties. We should make a clear commitment that when we get into office we will restore safety standards in mines and quarries at the same time as we restore them to public ownership.
The Minister has failed to take into account the unique role of the deputy. That role has developed over more than a century and a half. The first legislation came in the 1840s, and the deputy's role gradually developed until it became enshrined in legislation in 1911. Then came the Mines and Quarries Act 1954.
The 1954 Act came into being as a result of the bitter experiences of the 19th century. The opportunities that it provided have resulted in British coal mines becoming the safest in the world due to the unique combination of the deputy's supervisory and safety roles. The separation of supervisory work from safety considerations will take us back to the bad situation which existed in the 19th century.
I will give the Minister an example. I spent 10 years at the coal face underground. Sometimes the undermanager on the coal face wanted the shearer machine to move down the face, but because the distance from the tunnel to the coal seam was more than seven yards the deputy could say, "No, that machine does not move". In other words, he could base his decision on considerations for the safety of the men working on the coal face and not have to face the difficulty of the undermanager coming back at him about that. Under these regulations, all of that will change. If a deputy decides to stop a job for safety reasons, he can expect the manager to override his decision. Production will have priority over safety considerations.
The Minister mentioned contract workers. They do not come under the same strict supervision as payroll workers. The rate of accidents is more than twice as high among contract workers as among payroll workers. That is the result of separating the safety role from the supervisory role.
Deregulation is taking place in readiness for privatisation. If the Minister were prepared to come clean, he would tell the House just that. Since 1985 we have seen the gradual Americanisation of British mines. After the strike, Mr. MacGregor sent his managers to see what was happening in American mines and to come back with ideas, and gradually some of those ideas have been implemented—to the detriment of the men in the pits.
It is clear that the regulations will produce inferior safety standards in mines. Because the deputy's supervisory role is to be separate from his other role he will not be able to make the decisions that he made previously. If the Government had any real understanding of the situation and were prepared to listen to the compassion expressed on this side of the House, they would withdraw the code of practice and allow further consultations, particularly with the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers—the union responsible for implementing safety in mines.
I should like to start my speech, as so many of my colleagues have done, by referring to Bilsthorpe colliery. A few weeks after the disaster I had the opportunity to visit the colliery and to meet Mr. Robson, union officials and others. The devastating impact of that disaster on the whole community was clear. It has blighted the lives, not just of the suffering families, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) referred, but of the whole community. The disaster brings home to us the dangers that miners face every day when they cut coal and the need for tough safety regulations. Miners need to work in a climate or, to use a word that the Minister for Energy abused some weeks ago, a culture in which it is possible for safety and productivity to co-exist.
The debate is taking place because of the uproar following the way in which this statutory instrument was presented. It was not presented so much as slipped under the door as the House was closing for the summer recess. Despite the nine years of discussions, the Select Committee's deliberations on safety and the opportunities to comment, the only people who have not had an opportunity to comment until today are those who are ultimately responsible for safety regulations, namely, this House of Commons. We give a grudging welcome to today's opportunity because the handling of the matter—the presentation of a fait accompli—is not the way to establish a consensus on which safety procedures can proceed.
There have been several speeches, and some interventions were almost speeches. That is often the case when those who intervene speak with passion, authority and experience. I am thinking of the interventions of my hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Mr. Cummings), for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes)—a sprinkling from across the whole British coalfield.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Sir H. Walker) was the author of the Health and Safety Commission. His speech was an erudite, passionate defence of the regulations that he and his right hon. Friends introduced so many years ago and consolidated into a code of practice acceptable to and understood by all sections of the industry. At the heart of it were his words that those involved "had a duty" to maintain and improve conditions.
What we see today is not the fulfilment of that duty so much as the avoidance of it and of detailed, explicit statutes from which to seek guidance. We have heard today of men taking the 1954 Act down the pit with them as their defence against management which is sometimes stupid and sometimes insensitive in its pursuit of production. We know that this independence was enjoyed not just by the deputies but by the tradesmen and craftsmen who go down pits and have a critical role to play. The men always knew that, quite separate from the colliery management, there were the deputies and firemen.
Perhaps surprisingly, Opposition Members today have quoted Winston Churchill. Introducing the Coal Mines Bill of 1906 he said:
The deputies and firemen are the non-commissioned officers of the Mining Industry, and just as non-commissioned officers are said to be the backbone of the British Army, so the deputies and firemen are the essential foundation on which the safety and security of the mines mainly repose.
It may seem almost heretical of me to say this, but I do not think that the pit deputies are necessarily candidates for canonisation. They can be a pain in the neck—indeed they are, both to the management and to the men winning the coal—but they have their own standards; they have independence, based on statute and consolidated in the 1954 Act. This means that when men in my constituency go down the pit, their wives and families and people like me who send them down there have confidence that, if it is sensible and safe for them to work, they will work.
That is not at all the same as saying that it is "practicable", an expression that has infected this debate. There have been many references to the phrase "as far as is practicable". We do not want our people to be safe as far as is practicable. We want the miners in the coal mines of this country to win the coal on our behalf with the guarantee that there will be no conflict of interest underground between the demands of production and those of safety.
We know, on the basis of 40 or so years of public ownership, that it is possible to balance those two elements. Our coal industry is more successful now than any other deep mining industry in the world. It operates under geological difficulties far in excess of those anywhere else across the globe.
We know that if miners are given the right opportunities and technology they can do the job safely and effectively. And we know what happened at Bilsthorpe: the men were required to dig coal for their livelihood, but corners were cut by means of roof bolting and skin-to-skin technology. That resulted in a tragic accident that could have been anticipated. The 1989 Allerton Bywater report identified the dangers caused by the erosion of residual pillars. The warnings were clear for all to see, but as Bilsthorpe was fighting for its life, it seems that other considerations took precedence.
The miners should never have been forced to choose between these considerations. Ministers knew that they were offering false hope to the men. Similarly, the choice between productivity and safety is essentially a false one.
Yes. The roof bolting was not the major contributory factor. As the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) pointed out, perhaps the inspectors protested too much in that respect. However, in the context of the skin-to-skin approach, without guarantees of proper pillars to hold up the coal around the workings there was a serious threat to which the men should not have been exposed.
Safety is not incompatible with increased productivity under a system of public ownership. We are proud of the record of the publicly owned British coal industry, and we are proud that the arrangements for safety have always been based on consensus. This is the first time an issue of safety has been the subject of division in the House. In the weeks and months ahead the House will face the challenge of the Government's proposals to privatise ownership of the coal industry. The Government want to create conditions that will attract foreign investors to our industry to buy the mines from the Government.
Increased safety is fine, but let us have safety arrangements that enjoy the confidence of the miners group in this House, for instance. We ask the miners of this country to make the sacrifices involved in going underground, after all.
It is very difficult for the Minister to provide us with evidence of fatalities in private mines because, as we know, the HSE does not calculate the figures separately. More importantly, however, why are these figures not to be made available? Will the Minister admit that the reason is that it would be deeply embarrassing for the Government and the HSE if the figures were made known?
If the Government do not have statistics, I can give them mine. The accident rate in the private mining sector is three times higher than that in British Coal. The risk of death in private licensed mines is greater than it is in British Coal mines, and the fatality rate in private United States mines is three times greater than the rate in publicly owned British Coal. It is no use Ministers claiming that this last statistic can be explained by the different geological conditions in America. If anything, conditions there are easier. The United States should therefore have a lower accident rate.
The truth is that the system of ownership in America does not lend itself to safety because the pursuit of profit is always put before safety in the private mines. The outcome of this debate will determine not how many men go down a pit to cut coal but how many come out of the pit at the end of a shift. Even as we speak, British colliery managers have nothing more than vague, unspecified guidelines to follow—instructions that are so inadequate that the managers are still hanging on to the tried and tested procedures in the Mines and Quarries Act 1954.
Surely it would have been more sensible if Ministers had taken the time to come up with a consensus on safety, since consensus has served the industry so well for so long.
There have been times in the House in recent months when Tory Members have supported us and the coal industry. I urge those who have voted with us to save the coal industry to join us in the Lobbies tonight to vote down these mean and dangerous regulations. Our task tonight is not to save miners' jobs; it is to save miners' lives.
With the leave of the House, I should like to try to answer as many of the points made in the debate as I can. I shall be happy to write to hon. Members about any important matters that I do not have time to deal with.
The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) made much of the "practicable" point as it applies to the regulations. He was echoed in that by the hon. Members for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer).
The hon. Member for Wansbeck waved the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 and asked where the test of practicability was to be found in that Act. If he turns to section 157, he will find that it states:
It shall be a defence in any legal proceedings to recover damages and in any prosecution, in so far as the proceedings or prosecution are or is based on an allegation of a contravention, in relation to a mine or quarry, of—
It goes on to say that it shall be a defence
to prove that it was impracticable to avoid or prevent the contravention.
The hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members argued that the idea of practicability was new. That argument is undermined by the fact that the 1954 legislation was subject to that test of practicability.
No. I have many issues that I wish to raise.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said that the mines inspectorate has too close a relationship with British Coal. That was unworthy of him and I venture to remind him of the argument made by a number of his hon. Friends that the British coal industry has an excellent record.
No, I have already said that I want to deal with many arguments.
A number of hon. Members said that our coal industry had the best safety record in the world. That record might have something to do with the quality of the mines inspectorate and its splendid work. It is regrettable that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras should have sought to cast aspersions on the integrity and independence of the mines inspectorate, which has supported the proposals.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) asked me an important question about the division of responsibility for supervision and inspection. He specifically asked about what would happen in an emergency. The regulations separate supervision from inspection. The advantages of that separation are clear. If the person in charge is miles away making an inspection, he cannot supervise the men at the coal face.
My right hon. Friend also asked who was responsible in an emergency. The supervisor for an area, as is normal throughout the industry, would be responsible. Of course, if an inspector on his rounds finds something that requires immediate action, he must take it. In all other circumstances, he reports matters requiring attention to the supervisor, who has a duty to arrange remedial action. I hope that that will reassure my right hon. Friend.
The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) asked me about an important matter that has been raised by several hon. Members and said that my answer to his question would determine whether he supported the Government in the Lobby tonight. I hope that my answer will be clear. He said that the ability to halt the process for safety reasons had been removed. That is not so. Section 79 of the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 makes it the duty of the person in charge of any part of the mine, if there is an immediate danger, to withdraw the workers. The Management and Administration of Safety and Health at Mines Regulations do not change section 79. On the basis of that assurance, I hope that we will have the support of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues tonight.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) took me to task over the timing of the regulations. I explained to him why there had been a delay in tabling the regulations before the House and why we felt that we had to comply with the suggested timetable of the Health and Safety Commission. I will certainly bring his remarks to the attention of the commission. I hope that he will understand the reasons why Ministers have acted as they have.
The right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Sir H. Walker) has played an important part in ensuring that we have an excellent Health and Safety Commission in this country and high standards of health and safety. As he said, he was the sponsoring Minister, and he asked whether it was right—he almost suggested that it was not right—for the regulations not to improve or maintain safety standards. Section 1(2) of the legislation, for which he was responsible, requires the commission to introduce proposals that maintain and improve safety. The explanatory memorandum attached to the regulations states:
The proposals are necessary in order to improve and strengthen the current statutory requirements which have certain defects and anomalies.
I suggest that if the right hon. Gentleman were the Minister responsible, he, like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and myself, would have felt moved to table the regulations before the House, given the Health and Safety Commission's recommendations.
The right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central said that mining was different from other industries and that the Health and Safety Commission should not tamper with existing legislation. It is true that the safety record since the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 was introduced has been considerable. However, that does not mean that there is no room for improvement or that the target-setting approach endorsed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is inappropriate for the mining industry. That approach was adopted post-Cullen in another hazardous industry—offshore oil production.
The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) suggested that in some underground areas nobody would be qualified to test for gas, but that is not so. In every underground area there will have to be a supervisor who must have, as a minimum, the qualifications of a deputy, including the ability to test for gas. Every inspector must be qualified to test for gas, and has the duty to do so.
The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), in an ill-tempered contribution, talked about the regulations being inspired by privatisation. I am at a loss to understand how he can describe a process that began in 1983—consultation on the regulations began in 1988—as being driven by the requirements of privatisation. I also fail to understand his apparent belief that the Health and Safety Commission's determination to seek privatisation was so great that it would override its statutory duties.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) said that accidents were being caused because shifts were too long. Some work has been done on the relationship between accident frequency and the time of the shift when the accident took place. The work shows that most accidents occur mid-shift and there is no discernible increase towards the end of the shift.
No, I will not.
The hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) criticised me for never having worked down a coal mine. My workplace is the House of Commons, as is his. One of my activities in the House is to listen to the contributions of hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman suggested that my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby and my hon. Friend the Member for Newark had said that they were going to vote against the regulations.
The hon. Member for Doncaster, North was talking absolute nonsense as both my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend made important and supportive contributions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby was at pains to describe how the regulations had issued from the Health and Safety Commission. He said that we were entitled to take them seriously, given that organisation's track record in maintaining health and safety standards in this country.
The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central talked about a code of practice replacing legislation, and its being a retrograde step. A breach of the codes of practice will be a prima facie case for a breach of the regulations. It is nonsense to compare—as many Opposition Members did —an approved code of practice with a voluntary requirement which does not have statutory force.
The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central also said that no evidence was being produced for the need for a new law. However, in submitting the MASHAM proposals, the Health and Safety Commission made it clear that they were necessary to deal with some defects and anomalies in existing law, chiefly that those in immediate charge in a deputy's district—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) and others have had their say, but he and his friends do not want to hear the answers. They know that the Health and Safety Commission have acted in the interests of safety, while they have spoken for the interests of trade unions, which is not the same.
The regulations have been produced to ensure that the highest standards of safety are maintained in mines. The Opposition have put up a dreadful showing tonight, and have shown where their interests lie. I commend the regulations to the House.
|Division No. 368]||[6.59 pm|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret|
|Adams, Mrs Irene||Bell, Stuart|
|Ainger, Nick||Benn, Rt Hon Tony|
|Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)||Bennett, Andrew F.|
|Allen, Graham||Benton, Joe|
|Alton, David||Bermingham, Gerald|
|Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)||Berry, Dr. Roger|
|Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)||Betts, Clive|
|Armstrong, Hilary||Blair, Tony|
|Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy||Blunkett, David|
|Ashton, Joe||Boateng, Paul|
|Austin-Walker, John||Boyce, Jimmy|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Boyes, Roland|
|Barnes, Harry||Bradley, Keith|
|Barron, Kevin||Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)|
|Battle, John||Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)|
|Bayley, Hugh||Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)|
|Byers, Stephen||Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)|
|Caborn, Richard||Hughes, Roy (Newport E)|
|Callaghan, Jim||Hughes, Simon (Southwark)|
|Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)||Hutton, John|
|Campbell-Savours, D. N.||Ingram, Adam|
|Canavan, Dennis||Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)|
|Cann, Jamie||Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)|
|Chisholm, Malcolm||Jamieson, David|
|Clapham, Michael||Janner, Greville|
|Clark, Dr David (South Shields)||Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)|
|Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)||Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)|
|Clelland, David||Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)|
|Coffey, Ann||Jowell, Tessa|
|Connarty, Michael||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)||Keen, Alan|
|Cook, Robin (Livingston)||Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Khabra, Piara S.|
|Corston, Ms Jean||Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil (Islwyn)|
|Cousins, Jim||Leighton, Ron|
|Cryer, Bob||Lestor, Joan (Eccles)|
|Cummings, John||Lewis, Terry|
|Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)||Livingstone, Ken|
|Darling, Alistair||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Davidson, Ian||Loyden, Eddie|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Lynne, Ms Liz|
|Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)||McAllion, John|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I)||McAvoy, Thomas|
|Denham, John||McCartney, Ian|
|Dewar, Donald||McCrea, Rev William|
|Dixon, Don||Macdonald, Calum|
|Dobson, Frank||McFall, John|
|Donohoe, Brian H.||Mackinlay, Andrew|
|Dunnachie, Jimmy||McLeish, Henry|
|Eagle, Ms Angela||Maclennan, Robert|
|Eastham, Ken||McMaster, Gordon|
|Enright, Derek||McWilliam, John|
|Etherington, Bill||Madden, Max|
|Evans, John (St Helens N)||Maddock, Mrs Diana|
|Ewing, Mrs Margaret||Mahon, Alice|
|Fatchett, Derek||Mandelson, Peter|
|Faulds, Andrew||Marek, Dr John|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Fisher, Mark||Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)|
|Flynn, Paul||Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)|
|Foster, Rt Hon Derek||Martlew, Eric|
|Foster, Don (Bath)||Maxton, John|
|Foulkes, George||Meale, Alan|
|Fraser, John||Michael, Alun|
|Fyfe, Maria||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Galloway, George||Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)|
|Gapes, Mike||Milburn, Alan|
|Garrett, John||Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)|
|Gerrard, Neil||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John||Morgan, Rhodri|
|Godman, Dr Norman A.||Morley, Elliot|
|Godsiff, Roger||Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'nshawe)|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)|
|Gordon, Mildred||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)|
|Gould, Bryan||Mowlam, Marjorie|
|Graham, Thomas||Mudie, George|
|Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)||Mullin, Chris|
|Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)||Murphy, Paul|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire)|
|Grocott, Bruce||O'Brien, William (Normanton)|
|Gunnell, John||O'Hara, Edward|
|Hain, Peter||Olner, William|
|Hanson, David||O'Neill, Martin|
|Hardy, Peter||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Harman, Ms Harriet||Paisley, Rev Ian|
|Henderson, Doug||Parry, Robert|
|Heppell, John||Patchett, Terry|
|Hill, Keith (Streatham)||Pendry, Tom|
|Hinchliffe, David||Pickthall, Colin|
|Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)||Pike, Peter L.|
|Home Robertson, John||Pope, Greg|
|Hood, Jimmy||Powell, Ray (Ogmore)|
|Hoon, Geoffrey||Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E)|
|Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)||Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)|
|Hoyle, Doug||Prescott, John|
|Primarolo, Dawn||Spellar, John|
|Purchase, Ken||Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)|
|Quin, Ms Joyce||Steel, Rt Hon Sir David|
|Radice, Giles||Steinberg, Gerry|
|Randall, Stuart||Stevenson, George|
|Raynsford, Nick||Stott, Roger|
|Redmond, Martin||Strang, Dr. Gavin|
|Rendel, David||Straw, Jack|
|Robertson, George (Hamilton)||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)||Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)|
|Roche, Mrs. Barbara||Tipping, Paddy|
|Rogers, Allan||Turner, Dennis|
|Rooker, Jeff||Vaz, Keith|
|Rooney, Terry||Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold|
|Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)||Wallace, James|
|Rowlands, Ted||Walley, Joan|
|Ruddock, Joan||Wareing, Robert N|
|Salmond, Alex||Watson, Mike|
|Sedgemore, Brian||Wicks, Malcolm|
|Sheerman, Barry||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (SW'n W)|
|Shore, Rt Hon Peter||Wilson, Brian|
|Short, Clare||Winnick, David|
|Simpson, Alan||Wise, Audrey|
|Skinner, Dennis||Worthington, Tony|
|Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)||Wray, Jimmy|
|Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)||Wright, Dr Tony|
|Smith, Rt Hon John (M'kl'ds E)||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)|
|Snaps, Peter||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Soley, Clive||Mr. Eric Illsley and|
|Spearing, Nigel||Mr. Peter Kilfoyle.|
|Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)||Chapman, Sydney|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Churchill, Mr|
|Alexander, Richard||Clappison, James|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)||Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)|
|Allason, Rupert (Torbay)||Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif)|
|Amess, David||Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey|
|Ancram, Michael||Coe, Sebastian|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Colvin, Michael|
|Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)||Congdon, David|
|Ashby, David||Conway, Derek|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)|
|Atkins, Robert||Coombs, Simon (Swindon)|
|Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)||Cope, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)||Cormack, Patrick|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)||Couchman, James|
|Baldry, Tony||Cran, James|
|Banks, Matthew (Southport)||Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)|
|Bates, Michael||Davies, Quentin (Stamford)|
|Bellingham, Henry||Davis, David (Boothferry)|
|Bendall, Vivian||Day, Stephen|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Deva, Nirj Joseph|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Devlin, Tim|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Dickens, Geoffrey|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Dicks, Terry|
|Booth, Hartley||Dorrell, Stephen|
|Boswell, Tim||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James|
|Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)||Dover, Den|
|Bowis, John||Duncan, Alan|
|Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes||Duncan-Smith, Iain|
|Brandreth, Gyles||Dunn, Bob|
|Brazier, Julian||Durant, Sir Anthony|
|Bright, Graham||Dykes, Hugh|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)||Eggar, Tim|
|Browning, Mrs. Angela||Elletson, Harold|
|Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)||Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter|
|Burns, Simon||Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)|
|Burt, Alistair||Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)|
|Butcher, John||Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)|
|Butterfill, John||Evans, Roger (Monmouth)|
|Carlisle, John (Luton North)||Evennett, David|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Faber, David|
|Carrington, Matthew||Fabricant, Michael|
|Carttiss, Michael||Fenner, Dame Peggy|
|Cash, William||Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Fishburn, Dudley|
|Forman, Nigel||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick|
|Forth, Eric||Madel, David|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman||Maitland, Lady Olga|
|Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)||Malone, Gerald|
|Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)||Mans, Keith|
|Freeman, Rt Hon Roger||Marland, Paul|
|French, Douglas||Marlow, Tony|
|Fry, Peter||Marshall, John (Hendon S)|
|Gale, Roger||Martin, David (Portsmouth S)|
|Gallie, Phil||Mates, Michael|
|Gardiner, Sir George||Mawhinney, Dr Brian|
|Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan||Mellor, Rt Hon David|
|Garnier, Edward||Merchant, Piers|
|Gill, Christopher||Milligan, Stephen|
|Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair||Mills, Iain|
|Gorst, John||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW)||Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW)|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Moate, Sir Roger|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||Monro, Sir Hector|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)||Montgomery, Sir Fergus|
|Grylls, Sir Michael||Moss, Malcolm|
|Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn||Needham, Richard|
|Hague, William||Nelson, Anthony|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Hannam, Sir John||Newton, Rt Hon Tony|
|Hargreaves, Andrew||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Harris, David||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Norris, Steve|
|Hawkins, Nick||Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley|
|Hawksley, Warren||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Hayes, Jerry||Ottaway, Richard|
|Heald, Oliver||Page, Richard|
|Hendry, Charles||Paice, James|
|Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael||Patnick, Irvine|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence L.||Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Hill, James (Southampton Test)||Pawsey, James|
|Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Horam, John||Pickles, Eric|
|Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Porter, Barry (Wirral S)|
|Howard, Rt Hon Michael||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)||Portillo, Rt Hon Michael|
|Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)||Rathbone, Tim|
|Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)||Redwood, Rt Hon John|
|Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)||Renton, Rt Hon Tim|
|Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)||Richards, Rod|
|Hunter, Andrew||Riddick, Graham|
|Jack, Michael||Robathan, Andrew|
|Jackson, Robert (Wantage)||Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn|
|Jenkin, Bernard||Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)|
|Jessel, Toby||Robinson, Mark (Somerton)|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)|
|Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)||Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela|
|Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Ryder, Rt Hon Richard|
|Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine||Sackville, Tom|
|Key, Robert||Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim|
|Kilfedder, Sir James||Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas|
|King, Rt Hon Tom||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian|
|Knapman, Roger||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)||Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)||Shersby, Michael|
|Knox, Sir David||Sims, Roger|
|Lait, Mrs Jacqui||Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)|
|Lamont, Rt Hon Norman||Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)|
|Lang, Rt Hon Ian||Soames, Nicholas|
|Lawrence, Sir Ivan||Speed, Sir Keith|
|Legg, Barry||Spencer, Sir Derek|
|Leigh, Edward||Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)|
|Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)||Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)|
|Lidington, David||Spink, Dr Robert|
|Lightbown, David||Spring, Richard|
|Lilley, Rt Hon Peter||Sproat, Iain|
|Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)||Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)|
|Lord, Michael||Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Luff, Peter||Steen, Anthony|
|MacGregor, Rt Hon John||Stephen, Michael|
|MacKay, Andrew||Stern, Michael|
|Maclean, David||Stewart, Allan|
|Streeter, Gary||Walker, Bill (N Tayside)|
|Sumberg, David||Waller, Gary|
|Tapsell, Sir Peter||Ward, John|
|Taylor, Ian (Eshar)||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)||Waterson, Nigel|
|Temple-Morris, Peter||Watts, John|
|Thomason, Roy||Whitney, Ray|
|Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)||Whittingdale, John|
|Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Thomton, Sir Malcolm||Wiggin, Sir Jerry|
|Thumham, Peter||Wilkinson, John|
|Townend, John (Bridlington)||Willetts, David|
|Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)||Wilshire, David|
|Tracey, Richard||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Tredinnick, David||Wolfson, Mark|
|Trend, Michael||Wood, Timothy|
|Trotter, Neville||Yeo, Tim|
|Twinn, Dr Ian||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Viggers, Peter||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Waldegrave, Rt Hon William||Mr. Robert G. Hughes and|
|Walden, George||Mr. James Arbuthnot.|