HC Deb 27 July 1896 vol 43 cc754-66

A Secretary of State on "being satisfied that any explosive is or is likely to become dangerous, may, by order, of which notice shall he given in such manner as he may direct, prohibit the use thereof in any mine, or in any class of mines, either absolutely or subject to conditions, and the provisions of the principal Act as to contraventions of general rules shall apply to contraventions of any such prohibitions.

*MR. McKENNA moved, after the word "conditions," to insert the following words:— and where it appears to any inspector appointed under the Public Act that further precautions are necessary for the safety of the mine by reason of its being dry and dusty, a Secretary of State may make regulations with regard to the watering or damping of the mine, or any ways or places therein. He was aware that Clause 1 of the Bill provided for the making of special rules for securing the watering of mines, and he believed that in the majority of cases those rules would be sufficient to insure the safe working of the mines; but, in certain cases, in some parts of the country special rules were regarded with suspicion, and they led to costly arbitration. It was proposed that in such cases the Secretary of State should have power to make fresh rules with regard to the watering of the mine. The Royal Commission presided over by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Colonies, had stated that the only known method of avoiding the danger arising from the presence of coal dust in fiery mines was by watering. The matter was too important to be left entirely to the result of an Arbitration on Special Rules. Where further precaution was necessary the Secretary of State should have power to direct the watering of mines. Unless the House did their duty in this matter, preventable accidents would occur, and hundreds of lives might be lost. ["Hear, hear!"]


said that no doubt the Amendment of the hon. Member was of a moderate character upon the face of it, but it involved large changes and considerable consequences. He need scarcely say that he felt considerable satisfaction at the confidence which the Amendment proposed to place in the Home Office. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman opposite had done much to promote that confidence which, certainly, a few years ago was not given to the Department. At all events there were very great differences of opinion as to the best way of dealing with the subject of fiery and dusty mines, while, on the other hand, there was some agreement on the question of dealing with explosives. They had, therefore, not the same case for taking the former class of mines out of the special rules and giving exceptional power to the Secretary of State with reference to them as they had in the matter of explosives. It was for that reason, after the most careful consideration, that he decided, in conformity with the decision adopted by his predecessor last year, to limit his request to asking Parliament to deal only with explosives in the manner suggested in the sixth clause, because he thought it would be possible by arrangement, conferences, and by the best advice he could get, to do a great deal in the direction the hon. Member indicated in his Amendment. ["Hear, hear!"] In principle he did not object to the hon. Member's proposal, though in degree he did, as what he suggested could not be differentiated sufficiently, as could explosives, from the subject of the special rules under Clause 1. That was one of the reasons why he objected to the Amendment, although he could not but be conscious that other objections might be urged to it from many quarters of the House. He could not but feel that the Bill had been treated as one upon which there had been substantial agreement, and that for the sake of insuring its passage those representing one side of the question or the other had refrained from making proposals which they would otherwise have done. Although he admitted that it was not a perfect Bill, it was one which he trusted would do some good, and he earnestly hoped the hon. Gentleman would not press an Amendment which would cause contention or render it more difficult to pass the Bill. ["Hear, hear!"] If he objected at the present moment to accepting the Amendment he did so out of no hostility to the principle, nor out of any unwillingness to accept some further responsibility on the part of the Home Office. If the House was willing to intrust greater powers to the Home Office at a future period, he hoped—if he still held his present position—that he and the members of that Department would not be found unwilling to do their best on the subject. ["Hear, hear!"]


was sure every interest concerned in this matter would recognise with satisfaction and gratitude the spirit with which the Home Secretary had dealt with this subject. ["Hear, hear!"] He himself had very little to say upon it except what he said in the Grand Committee. He regretted very much that those questions, upon which really the lives of thousands of men depended, should be made to hang upon so unsatisfactory a basis as that of arbitration. There was no one who had any experience whatever of the profession of the law who did not look with horror and dismay on arbitrations. It used to be the practice—he hoped it was not quite so much so now—when an issue was being tried to refer the question to arbitration. What did that mean? It meant delay for months and it meant an addition to the expense. ["Hear, hear!"] What happened was this. Counsel on one side said it was not convenient for him to come next week; counsel on the other side said it was inconvenient for him to come the week after, and the arbitrator wished the matter to be put off for a month. [Laughter.] That was the history of arbitration, and it was not a system on which it was satisfactory to leave such questions as these. ["Hear, hear!"] In Clause 1 they had five heads, all of them of the most serious character, affecting the lives of men, and what was prescribed in reference to them was that special rules had to be made by the Home Office on the advice of its inspectors. Then the matter was to be delayed and referred, to whom? To an arbitrator. Why? Was not the Home Secretary himself, with his competent advisers, the best arbitrator they could get in the matter? ["Hear, hear!"] He spoke as a Home Secretary of the remote past, but he knew very well that in his time he used to see at regular periods all the inspectors of mines. He was therefore able to state that he believed the Home Secretary had the very best information at his disposal to enable him to deal with questions of this character, and no arbitrator they could possibly find anywhere else could be as good as the Home Secretary with the materials at his disposal and advice such as he could obtain. ["Hear, hear!"] He was quite sure the right hon. Gentleman opposite concurred in that opinion, and he thought he was only surprised to find in the Grand Committee how universal the opinion was in favour of the Home Secretary having larger powers than were given him under this Bill. ["Hear, hear!"] The jealousy of the Central Department was in this matter entirely absent. ["Hear, hear!"] No arbitrator they could pick up could be half as experienced as the Home Secretary and his advisers, who were constantly conversant with these questions. If it had not been for the circumstances of the agreement under which this Bill was brought forward, he would certainly have taken issue in the Grand Committee upon the whole question of arbitration. He should like, as he said then, to have got rid of arbitration altogether, and to have left the regulations to have been made out by the man he believed to be the most competent authority—namely, the Home Secretary. It was perfectly true that this system of arbitration had been introduced not only into the Bill but into former Bills which had been proposed on this subject; but the right hon. Gentleman opposite took the bold and wise step in Clause 6 of taking power to the Home Secretary, without arbitration, to deal with the question of explosions. There was no doubt now, after the inquiries that had been made, that by far the most fertile and dangerous cause of explosions in many mines was the coal dust, and upon that subject the Commission presided over by the Colonial Secretary expressed the following opinion:— While recommending that every effort should he made to prevent undue accumulations of dust, it appears to your Majesty's Commissioners that the only effectual way of dealing with this source of danger would be a satisfactory system of watering and thoroughly wetting it. This precaution is already largely adopted in Durham, South Wales, Staffordshire, Yorkshire, and Derbyshire. In other districts little damping appears to he done. All that was asked here was that in Clause 6 there should be introduced the same power with reference to damping the coal dust that was given in respect of explosives. It was a remarkable thing that in the report of the Commission the two things were placed on precisely the same footing. The Commissioners stated at the conclusion of their report:— We have carefully considered the evidence on this question from all sides, and, while we are of opinion that the only sufficient precaution hitherto suggested against the dangers of coal dust in fiery mines is a complete and satisfactory system of watering, we also feel that the same reasons which have prevented us from recommending a universal and stereo typed rule in regard to the use of gunpowder apply with equal or even greater force to the provision of expensive and probably complicated systems of watering. Clause 6 only took explosives, and they said, why not take damping as well? It was really the logical conclusion of the Report of the Commission that they should put the two upon the same footing in reference to the making of regulations by the Home Secretary without arbitration. It was, no doubt, giving one additional power to the Home Secretary, but the feeling on the Grand Committee was almost unanimous in favour of a proposal of this kind, and he believed it was the knowledge of this feeling which had encouraged his hon. Friend to bring forward this Amendment. He understood the Home Secretary did not demur to that, but he was unwilling to assume the responsibility of a shorter and more efficient way of dealing with this matter than could be obtained by arbitration. The Home Office was willing to undertake this duty, but the right hon. Gentleman doubted whether or not Parliament was willing to trust the Home Office so far. Personally, he believed Parliament was perfectly willing to trust the Home Office—[cheers]—and, from his knowledge and experience of the Home Office, he was certain that it would be a very capable body for dealing with the question. It would be an impartial body, and would hear all parties interested, and all they had to do was to confer on the Home Secretary powers which would be so useful and beneficial that he ought to possess them. Those were the views which he entertained and which he advanced in the Grand Committee. The right hon. Gentleman at the end of his remarks appealed to a consideration of which he was bound to take notice. The right hon. Gentleman said that this was an agreed Bill. That was so broadly speaking, and certainly he would not do anything that would imperil the passing of the Measure. ["Hear, hear!"] Strongly as he felt upon the matter under discussion, if he thought there was anything in this, or any other Amendment, that would endanger the Bill, he should not be prepared to support it. But, if, as he hoped, all those interested in this industry were willing to trust the Home Secretary with powers in reference to coal dust and damping, as they had trusted him in the matter of explosives, then he thought they would break no agreement by placing such further powers on the right hon. Gentleman. The Amendment was brought forward with the idea of inviting agreement on the question. They were all, of course, equally interested in doing what was best for the protection of the lives of the miners, and he felt sure that if those who represented the mine owners expressed a willingness to accept the Amendment, it would give immense satisfaction in every district where coal was worked. The Home Secretary had stated that he would be willing to undertake the further responsibility for the purpose referred to, and he felt sure the House would be ready to furnish him with the necessary powers. ["Hear, hear!"]

* COLONEL BLUNDELL (Lancashire, Ince)

would suggest to the Home Secretary the formation of a Committee of experienced and able Inspectors to consider the whole question of explosives, and to base his decisions on their recommendations and not on the recommendation of each inspector of a district, who might take very different views. With regard to the Amendment, he strongly urged the right hon. Gentleman not to go beyond the powers he had already taken, and not to touch the question of damping at present.


said it was apparent from the remarks of the last speaker and the speech of the Home Secretary, that the mine owners in the House had made up their minds not to accept the Amendment. This rather confirmed the view which some Members had taken, and expressed on the Second Reading, that on the whole it might have been better to delay the subject until next year and bring in a stronger Bill than to hurry the present Measure through. When it was considered how little this Bill did which really could not be done at present under the Rules and Regulations, he thought it would not have been unwise to wait until next Session, and then to bring in a Bill of a very much stronger character than the one now before the House. ["Hear, hear!"] It seemed a little startling that the House of Commons should find itself with its hands so tied that it was unable to take the view of this Amendment, or even of the stronger Amendment which was on the Paper, until two days ago, which he believed it would take if it were unfettered. The discussion had proceeded on the basis that this Amendment was intended to place damping and watering in the same position as explosives. That was not so. This Amendment was a compromise; it left damping and watering for Special Rules in the first case, and it was only in exceptional cases that the power of the Home Secretary was intended to be exercised. The Home Secretary would not necessarily make an order based upon the opinion of one inspector, but he would naturally be guided by the average view of all the Inspectors, the heads of his Department, and the intentions of Parliament. Under the circumstances he regretted that the matter had not been left over until next year; indeed, he believed there would be less loss of life during the existence of the present Parliament if they waited for a stronger Bill.

* MR. STUART-WORTLEY (Sheffield, Hallam)

pointed out that the matters of damping and watering had not hitherto been relegated to arbitration. The system of Special Ruleshad worked very smoothly for nearly a quarter of a century. Nevertheless, he thought some of his hon. Friends were unduly apprehensive of the effects of this proposal. An order of the Secretary of State under the Amendment would only operate in respect of a particular mine, and it was almost inconceivable that that order would be made without a local inquiry which would probably cost some money and take some time. It should be remembered that when provisions restricting the use of explosives were contained in the Bill of 1887 they received the strongest opposition from South Wales, not only from the mine owners, but from the men. On the general question of arbitration, he might, perhaps, be for given for telling the House that, from his own experience at the Home Office, he came to the conclusion that, though Special Rules had in very many cases been established, these arbitration provisions were very rarely resorted to. The only case he could remember, though he would not say it was the only one, was a case in which there was an arbitration as to whether a petroleum engine should be used underground. His hon. and gallant Friend below him proposed that the Home Secretary should be guided entirely by a War Office Committee. He could certainly say that the Home Secretary was at present advised on the question of explosives by gentlemen as competent as those in the service of any Government in the world. It was curious that the right hon. Gentleman opposite had not hit upon the most serious objection of all to the present system of arbitration, and that was that what were practically to be private local laws were left to the arrangement of the arbitrator, who was a private person. He thought, there was no doubt that the representatives of the mine owners might, without damage or prejudice to their interests, give way on this point. It was right, perhaps, that their legitimate scruples should lead them to ask for a little longer time to become familiarised with procedure; but he suggested that they would have ample time for that purpose before any executive order was made under this Amendment.


said that the great majority of explosions had either arisen immediately from coal dust or been intensified in their effects by it. There was no doubt this Amendment was of a drastic character, as it would impose a greater amount of responsibility on the Home Office with a view to affording greater protection to human life; but he did not think it ought to be agreed to hastily. By this proposal responsibility would be shifted from the coal owner to the inspector, and it was a matter of absolute impossibility that the Inspectors should exercise anything like effective supervision in the matter. The only course open to the Inspectors would be to declare every mine in their districts dry and dusty, and that would meet with opposition not merely from the employers I but also from the men. If they did not resort to that procedure, they would only deal with those cases which were brought under their notice, and the effect on the mine owner would be that he would not take so much care, because he would be sheltered under the responsibility of the inspector. There was a great fear that they would be lessening the sense of responsibility on the part of owners by Amendments of this description. There was no proposal so drastic which he would not support if it would tend to the prevention of explosions in mines, but every coal owner, in his own interest, was prepared to take the utmost precautions against explosions. He had had considerable experience in explosions, and he contended that if they imposed this duty upon the Inspectors in the country they would find that it was a duty which could not be effectively performed, and which would at the same time lessen and weaken the sense of responsibility on the part of the mine owners.


deprecated the notion that if the mine owners hesitated to accept this Amendment it was because they did not desire to increase the safety of mines. It really was the fact that mine owners, as the hon. and learned Member had said, desired to promote the safety of their mines as far as possible. It could not be lost sight of that in some mines watering was most dangerous, as the roof or floor would not bear the mass of water without risks of other kinds. If the present system of arbitration was superseded it should be by some definite method of inquiry, and the coal owners were perfectly ready to consider any better method by which the system of arbitration might be superseded.


said the arguments used by the hon. and learned Member for North-West Durham might equally well be used against every restriction in favour of safety on our railways, and against every precaution for saving life in dangerous industries. The hon. and learned Member also said that if the Amendment were carried it would remove, the responsibility as to dust in mines from the owners to the Inspectors. He did not believe it would, but even if it did throw more responsibility on the Inspectors, the cost of appointing five or ten additional Inspectors would be a small matter compared with getting rid of the dust altogether, and, by damping, removing the causes of explosion. There was a possibility that a keen competition between owner and owner for supplying coal in certain markets would make them lax in the damping of the mines, if it was left to them to do as it was under the present law, and he did not believe the keenness of competition ought to be any excuse for an owner not damping his mine when an inspector declared that it should be damped. The cost of damping would, after all, be paid by the consumer. It would be added to the price of coal, and as the addition would be very little, it would not affect the question of competition in any degree. Speaker after speaker had admitted that arbitration was often costly, frequently slow, and in many cases unscientific. Why, then, should they look upon arbitration as a blessed word, and allow it to prevail in matters affecting the lives and limbs of workers in mines? The attitude of the House of Commons on the question was that the poor are never but always to be blessed. And why was that its attitude? Because the mine owners and the representatives of the men had decided that the Bill should be got through this Session. He believed that the Bill would, in any case, get through. He believed the Amendment, if accepted, would not mean the rejection, of the Bill. The only effect of the Amendment if carried, would be to strengthen the Bill without endangering its chance of passing. It was said that, by the regulation of explosives, the chief factor in colliery explosions had been disposed of. But he regarded the presence of dust as the potential factor in all explosions. If there were no dust, it would not matter what lights or explosives were used. There were some authorities who held that coal dust might explode under certain atmospheric conditions without being brought into contact with any flame. Parliament had never moved in the restriction of the conditions of dangerous employments until they had had some ghastly evidence of the necessity for action. It would require two or three more explosions like the Hartley and Audley disasters before the House of Commons would grapple properly with this subject of coal dust. Experiments had gone far enough now to justify the House in taking coal dust regulations out of Clause 1 and putting them into Clause 6. There was no reason why more power should not be given to a central authority, if experience proved that the power could be better "exercised so than by a court of arbitration. He objected altogether to the question of damping being settled by a Court of Arbitration, which would be composed in one part of miners who were often reckless of danger, where they did not actually glory in it, and in the other part of mine-owners whose profits were concerned. Arbitration was not only ignorant but unscientific. He hoped the House would follow the lead on this question given by the Leader of the Opposition. Because he believed that democracy has a respect for brains, and that real democracy had brains at its basis, he preferred a centralised Home Office to any board of miners or employers that could be devised

MR. B. BAINBRIDGE, (Lincoln, Gainsborough)

as one who had given a good many years of his life to endeavouring to reduce the number of accidents in mines, desired to inform the House that there were two kinds of accidents in mines. There were a large number of accidents which no Act of Parliament would ever reach, and there were a number of accidents due to explosions which were almost invariably caused by the improper use of gunpower. In his exposition of the subject the hon. Member for Battersea had given way to exaggerations which were entirely due to want of knowledge. He himself did not think much of the general effect and influence of the Bill, but if there was one important point in it, it was the 6th Clause, which gave the Home Secretary large powers with regard to gunpowder. The right hon. Member for Sheffield had mentioned the fact that arbitrations had occurred seldom in the last 20 years. Why had they occurred so infrequently? Simply because the inspectors of mineshad been moderate in their demands. It must not be supposed that mine-owners were not anxiously alive to the danger of explosions. He cordially supported the views of the Home Secretary.

MR. BENJAMIN PICKARD (York, W.R., Normanton)

repudiated the insinuation made by the hon. Member for Battersea, that the miners had no common sense, nor could he allow it to be said that they ran risks and gloried in them. He had never seen a man run a risk knowingly, and never known a man glory in having risks round him. In any case, he should be prevented from running risks, and have such protection as this House would give him.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


hoped that the House would allow the Bill to be read a Third time. [cheers.]

SIR JOHN BRUNNER (Cheshire, Northwich)

trusted that the Prime Minister, when he saw this Bill appear in the Upper House, would remember the advice he had formerly given, that legislation by reference should be avoided. There was in this Bill more than one bad case of legislation by reference. He also complained that this Measure placed before every official of the Home Office the temptation to recommend patents either for lamps, explosives, or other material. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would make it a rule of the office, and take every precaution to prevent officials at the Home Office from being exposed to the temptation of recommending one patent as against another.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, amid cheers.

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