HC Deb 30 June 1847 vol 93 cc1071-8

On the Order of the Day having been read for the Second Reading of the Mines and Collieries Bill,


expressed a hope that the hon. Gentleman who had charge of the Bill would not press it to a second reading at this advanced period of the Session. There could be no doubt but that the question with which it professed to deal was one of very great importance, namely, the prevention, as far as possible, of accidents by explosion and otherwise in mines and collieries. The matter had engaged and was still engaging the serious attention of Government, and they had under their consideration the reports of various scientific and practical men suggesting precautions. Whether those precautions would be available or not, he could not then say; but it was at least certain that they should command the most attentive consideration of the Government. The period of the Session, however, was too far advanced to render it possible that the Bill should now receive that mature deliberation which its importance required; and as many influential gentlemen connected with the mines and collieries in the north of England had left town, under the impression that the Bill would be merely presented, and not gone into that Session, he trusted that the hon. Member would not, under present circumstances, press it to a division. He should not like to vote against the second reading of the Bill, but should very much prefer that the hon. Member should permit it to stand over until next Session, when there would be ample opportunity for the discussion of its details.


was very anxious that the Bill should be read a second time, even if it should proceed no further, for it was one in which a very large and influential body of gentlemen in this country took great interest, and one in which the welfare of the mining population was vitally involved. Many accidents, and those of the most serious character, were constantly taking place; and he was anxious that the House, by giving the Bill a second reading, should at least affirm the principle that the time had fully arrived when some interference on the part of the Legislature, to prevent the occurrence of such deplorable calamities, by means of ventilation and other measures, was imperatively called for. In very many instances the dreadful accidents which were of daily occurrence in our mines and collieries arose from neglect, and might have been prevented had a proper system of inspection and supervision been instituted on the part of the Government. In attestation of the truth of this assertion, he might refer to the statements contained in petitions which he had himself presented from persons engaged in mines and collieries, and also to the reports of the Government Commissioners themselves, who had been sent down to make inquiries respecting the origin of accidents in mines. Those statements made it quite evident that the time had come when the matter was ripe for legislative interference. The petitioners to whom he had alluded had repeatedly declared to that House their conviction that the explosions which were continually taking place, and by which so many human lives were sacrificed, might be prevented by proper care on the part of the coalowners, and by a proper system of inspection on the part of the Government. They even went so far as to assort, with reference to the accidents which were constantly occurring in the mines and collieries of Lancashire, Wales, and Staffordshire, that not more than one out of every fifty was unavoidable. It was clear, however, that the coalowners would not do anything with the view to ventilation or any other improvement, except under the pressure of Government interference. They would not use safety lamps unless the Legislature were to make it compulsory on them. Besides, it was well known that the grossest impositions were practised upon the men, by a system of making them work by measure instead of weight; and this was particularly the case in Staffordshire and Lancashire. The Acts which had been framed to supersede the payment of wages at a public-house had been evaded by putting the men in classes, and paying them by a money order, which they would only get changed at the public-house; and by each man paying a certain sum for beer, as the charge for changing the money order. He could see no reason why an adequate protection should not be afforded to the labourers in mines as well as to the labourers in factories. The mining population of this country numbered between four and five hundred thousand souls; and this being so, it could not be said that they were so numerically insignificant as to be unworthy the consideration of the Legislature. Five hundred accidents per year occurred on an average in the mines and collieries; and it was not without some feeling of remorse that that House should reflect that if proper precautions were adopted, by far the greater portion of those calamities would never have taken place. He hoped the House and the Government would allow this Bill to be read, at all events, a second time. They would disappoint a very meritorious and large portion of the population of the country if they did not consent to that proposition. He wished that by that step they would recognise the principle that legislative interference was necessary for the better regulation of mines and the better protection of the lives of persons engaged therein.


regretted that the hon. Gentleman had not thought it necessary (whatever the Government might think, and whatever opposition might be given) to carry his measure through every stage. It was the duty of Government not to allow this Parliament to be dissolved without doing that which was the primary duty of all Governments—provide for the security of those whom they were sent to that House to protect. [Mr. DUNCOMBE: I intend to persevere with the measure.] He thanked the hon. Gentleman for that declaration, and promised him his support from day to day and from night to night. He had misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, for he thought he had merely moved the second reading of the Bill with a view to establish the principle contained in it.


felt called upon by a sense of duty to move that the Bill be read a second time that day six mouths. He was not less anxious than the hon. Member for Finsbury to adopt measures that would prevent accidents in mines and collieries; but he wished that measures for that purpose should be introduced by responsible authority. This Bill of the hon. Member's was one of the most ridiculous in its provisions that it had ever been his fortune to witness; and it required no great discernment to see that the hon. Member had made the accidents that might happen in mines and collieries the peg on which to hang measures for the furtherance of other objects. The Bill provided that three inspectors should have the power of superintending the working of mines and collieries in England; to examine, inquire, and report, and to exercise a very extensive authority. Now, there were three great coal fields in England—the Northumberland and Durham, the Staffordshire and part of Yorkshire, and the Welsh coalfields: and there were, besides, the extensive coal-fields of Scotland. If Scotland was to be taken into consideration, one of these districts would require to be a supernumerary one. He was unprovided with documents, and could not, therefore, say at that moment what was the number of mines and collieries in England; but he believed that in Northumberland and Durham alone there were between two and three hundred. Could it be expected that one gentleman could pay that attention to this district which was contemplated by the Bill? The other portions of the Bill were equally defective. He thought a Select Committee should be appointed on the subject; and, when they had heard the evidence of scientific and practical men, the Government might bring in a Bill calculated to be of real utility. He would move as an Amendment that the Bill be read a second time that day three months.


said, that if there was any absurdity in the Bill, as the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down had stated, it could be remedied in Committee. He did not think that the number of inspectors appointed should form the main feature in the consideration of the measure. The Bill was intended to give protection to the lives, limbs, and fortunes of those who were engaged in these mines and collieries; and he thought that an attempt to remove the causes of those accidents, which were of such frequent occurrence in these places, was deserving of their best attention. He did not, think, however, that it would be of any use in his hon. Friend to press on the Bill to a Committee this Session; but his hon. Friend had acted rightly in bringing it before the House, as it would attract public attention to the subject, and be the means of getting a measure passed with reference to these evils in a future Parliament. He would vote for the second reading.


said, the Government were fully alive to the importance of the subject; but he did not think it right that they should sanction so sweeping a measure without the most careful consideration, and the most mature reflection. He had stated distinctly that the subject was one which demanded the attention of the Government and of the Legislature; and he begged the House to suspend its decision on the Bill at present.


was not opposed to the principles of the Bill; but wished the hon. Member for Finsbury to adopt the suggestion of the right hon. Baronet the Home Secretary, and withdraw the Bill for the present.


concurred in that suggestion; for, by those means, time would be given for more mature consideration and more deliberate inquiry; and he believed his hon. Friend would exercise a wise discretion in adopting it.


said, the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary had sanctioned the principle of the Bill; and surely he would vote as he had spoken? If some of the provisions were so objectionable, let those be struck out, and let the rest of the Bill be passed. He had always observed, that whenever a question was brought before the House affecting the interests of the working classes, it was staved off as long as it could be. Somebody, somewhere, would some day do something; but that somebody never was found, the time never arrived, and the something never was done. Why, if a noble Lord had been blown out of a coal mine, there would have been legislation on the subject the very next day the Parliament was assembled. It was notorious that these accidents happened from the grossest negligence—all that was required to prevent them was efficient ventilation. Was there anything unreasonable in asking that it might be provided for? When they looked back upon the awful calamities which occurred in the coal mines last year, ought they to hesitate in adopting the course which the principles of humanity dictated? They were told there was not time in the present Session. What were they there for? Was there any absolute necessity for the Session to close on a particular day? Considering the number of petitions that had been presented on this subject, he thought his hon. Friend had only performed a public duty in bringing it forward, and that he was bound to persevere with it.


thought the subject was too important to be disposed of at the close of the Session, when there was not time to discuss it properly; and he concurred with the right hon. Baronet the Home Secretary in the propriety of withdrawing it for the present.


observed, that although his name appeared at the back of the Bill, he was not responsible for its errors; neither could he lay claims to the very many excellent provisions which it contained. He was inclined to view the present question in a practical manner, and not in the shape of a political triumph; and, as the principle of the Bill was universally admitted to be a good one, he did not think his hon. Friend could gain anything by pressing it to a division. He recommended the hon. Gentleman to take example by the course which his hon. Colleague had adopted with reference to another measure, and withdraw the Bill at present, in order to afford the Government an opportunity of considering the subject.


also conceived that the hon. Member for Finsbury was entitled to the gratitude of his country for bringing forward that measure, one result of which, he trusted, would be that the owners of collieries would put, if not their houses, at least their mines in order. He was glad to see that those interested in mines assented to the leading principle of the Bill, so far as regarded the inspection; and hoped the Government would take up a measure which concerned so large a portion of the loyal subjects of the Queen.


observed, that nineteen out of twenty accidents that occurred were imputable to the carelessness of the men themselves, and did not arise from any causes which it was in the power of the coalowners to remove. He had looked over the Bill, and did not perceive a single clause directed against the notorious carelessness of persons employed in mines and collieries. It should he remembered, that when accidents occurred, they often occasioned the owners of mines losses that amounted to several thousand pounds. Surely such losses must produce more effect upon their minds than any 100l. penalties that a Bill of that kind might inflict. In his opinion, there ought to he no legislation on this subject without the report of a Committee.


said, that if the right hon. Baronet opposite would give a pledge that the Government themselves would proceed with some such measure, he ventured to hope that his hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury might for the present be induced to drop his Bill. As to what had been said about the necessity of previous investigation by a Committee, that was perfectly absurd. When ninety-seven persons wore well known to have been blown up at once, where was the necessity for a Committee?


could not give any distinct pledge upon the subject. He could undertake to say that the serious consideration of the Government should be given to it during the recess.


said, that what he complained of, and what almost induced him to persevere in taking the sense of the House on the second reading, was the manner in which it had been met by Gentlemen representing coalowners. Much difficulty had at times been found in dealing with cotton lords regarding employment in factories; but he was not sure that the difficulty was not greater in dealing with coal kings or kings' coal, old and young. He hoped that in the approaching Session, Parliament would not refuse to legislate upon this important subject, and that some protection would be given to those engaged in the arduous and dangerous duty of raising coals. He was quite willing to leave the matter in the hands of the right hon. Baronet; and on the present occasion would not give the House the trouble of dividing.

Bill withdrawn.