HC Deb 24 November 1911 vol 31 cc1589-603

(1) Electricity shall not be used in any part of a mine where, on account of the risk of explosion of gas or coal dust, the use of electricity would be dangerous to life, and if the owner of a mine, on being required by an inspector of the division not to use, or to desist from using electricity in the mine or any part thereof on such ground as aforesaid, refuses to do so, the question as to the application of this Section to the mine or part thereof shall be settled in manner provided by this Act for settling disputes.

(2) If in any place of a mine, or part of a ventilating district of a mine, the amount of inflammable gas in the air currents exceeds one-half per cent. or upwards, the use of electricity shall at once be discontinued in such place or part of such ventilating district where the inflammable gas exists till the air current is clear of the same, or shall not exceed one-half per cent.

(3) When any question under this Section is to be settled by arbitration, the owner shall, pending the settlement of the question, comply with the requirement of the inspector subject to an appeal to the Chief Inspector.

(4) The use of electricity in any mine shall be subject to general regulations under this Act.


I beg to move to leave out Sub-section (2). In doing so I want the Committee not to think for a moment that I am in any way an expert in coal mining. I merely move this matter from the standpoint of commonsense. It has been said to-day by hon. Members on both sides of the House that we are desirous of safeguarding employment in mines in every way we possibly can. That I think is right. At the same time, in doing so, we ought not to damage other interests. If this particular Sub-section is passed we are damaging to a great extent, almost vitally, the great electrical interest of this country, in which £15,000,000 is invested. The Sub-section says that where the inflammable gas in the air currents exceeds ½ per cent. or upwards, the use of electricity shall at once be discontinued in such place or part of such ventilating district where the inflammable gas exists till the air current is clear of the same or shall not exceed ½ per cent. Last night it was stated distinctly, I think from the Government Benches, that ½ per cent. was an amount which could not be detected.


I moved an Amendment in Grand Committee, and lower down on the Paper the hon. Member will see that I have put down an Amendment striking out the "one-half per cent. or upwards," and making it "one and a quarter."


Well, then, I trust that the hon. Baronet will second my Amendment. In support of my point, let me quote the Report of the Departmental Committee on the Use of Electricity in Mines, which was only printed this year—a Commission appointed apparently by the Home Secretary in 1909. If Members would read that Report I am sure that they would bring their commonsense to bear, and they will at once have this Clause deleted. Just let me quote one or two observations from that Report:— Experience has shown that the proper use of electricity cannot be regarded as inherently unsafe, and that it possesses some characteristics which are of great advantage in underground conditions, but having regard to the change in the prevailing system of distribution and to the natural development of apparatus, the Committee is of opinion that the existing rules require revision. The revised code of rules, hereafter referred to as 'the revised rules,' is attached to this Report as Appendix A. The Committee also say:— The feeling against the use of electricity in mines which found expression in some parts of the country was largely based, the Committee considers, either upon a vague fear due to lack of knowledge, or upon experience of the behaviour of badly constructed or maintained apparatus. The Committee knows of no place below ground in which electricity is in use to-day where both kinds of accident would not be avoided if the best present-day practice as regards construction and maintenance were complied with. The Committee continue:— The daily or frequent occurrence of inflammable gas in any place in quantity detectable by the ordinary safety lamp in use at the mine would make that place one to which prohibition should apply …. And the Committee are of opinion that: On the other hand, prohibition is not required where gas is seldom found, or where from experience in the neighbourhood and from all the evidence available it is likely to be of rare occurrence: provided good work and proper maintenance are insured so as to obviate as far as is practicable the risk of open sparking. In these circumstances danger only arises in the extremely unlikely event of the coincidence of three things, namely (i.) the presence of gas or of a dense cloud of coal dust, (ii.) such a failure of apparatus as would cause open sparking, and (iii.) failure of the officials or workmen to observe the rules. In such places, namely, where the use of electricity is not prohibited, but where there is the possibility of the occurrence of gas or of a dense cloud of coal dust, certain additional precautions are called for by the revised rules. That does not bear out the contention of Sub-section (2) of Clause 59. In the appendix they make certain recommendations, and in rule 15, page 32, of the Report, they make certain suggestions for the safeguarding of electricity in mines. They say:—In any part of a mine in which inflammable gas, although not normally present, may occur in quantity sufficient to be indicative of danger, the following additional rules shall be observed:— They lay down rules stating that electric lamps should be enclosed and so on, and in paragraph 5, they point out:— A safety lamp shall be provided and used with each motor when working, and should any indication of firedamp appear from such safety lamp, the person appointed to work the motor shall forthwith cut off the pressure therefrom and report the matter to a deputy or over-man or other official. All these reports and recommendations would indicate that this Sub-section is unnecessary, but apart from all that it is absolutely redundant. In the first Sub-section of Clause 59 you set up certain inspectors, and it is provided in Clauses 97 to 100 that these inspectors are to be selected with great care. For instance, in Monmouthshire they are to be able to speak the Welsh language. I do not know whether, in Scottish mines worked by Polish labour, the inspectors will be expected to be able to speak Yiddish and Polish. These inspectors, by Sub-section (4) of Clause 98, are given almost universal powers—powers quite as great as those of the Insurance Commissioners under the Insurance Bill. If you are going to take power to appoint these practical men to watch over everything connected with the mine and the safety of the men, surely the Sub-section which I moved to omit is absolutely redundant. If these inspectors are worth their salt, they will see that where electricity is used there will be no danger, and, that being so, this Sub-section is quite unnecessary.

Mr. J. E. GORDON (Brighton)

I beg to second the Amendment moved by my hon. Friend, not that in my Constituency we have any mines or pits to trouble us, but we have a large body of men dependent upon electrical works, and I have had most urgent representations from them pointing out that this Sub-section would be absolutely detrimental to their interests, to the interests of those who make their living in connection with the electrical works in my Constituency. It would involve about £10,000 a year loss in wages, and therefore I desire and hope that the Amendment of my hon. Friend will receive consideration.


We have had many curious Amendments moved from time to time in this House, but seldom have we had one in support of which so little argument has been used. The argument of the hon. Gentleman who moved the Amendment was that something like fifteen millions of money was invested in electrical industries in this country, and the last speaker told us that £10,000 in wages—I do not know whether it is per week or per annum—would be lost in his constituency. Apparently, he thinks that these works are to be allowed to manufacture machinery for mines quite irrespective of what may happen from such machinery in the mines. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that was his argument.


Both the Mover of the Amendment and myself expressed the belief that this Sub-section was unnecessary and redundant.


That is what remains to be seen. The House has already agreed that where naked lights are used in the mines the percentage of gas must not exceed 1¼. There is no such thing in the market as a gas-tight motor. I am speaking from experience. There is not a single motor working in any mine with which I am engaged in which there is any gas present. In any mine with which I am associated, if a motor was taken in where gas was in any quantities, the manager of that mine would very soon cease to occupy his position. The first Departmental Committee was appointed in 1903 by the late Lord Ritchie to inquire into the use of electricity, and to safeguard the use of electricity in mines. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Fenwick) sat upon that Committee together with representatives of the electrical trade, the owners of mines and Government inspectors, and a most valuable Report was issued in 1904, and if hon. Members will turn to the Report of that Committee they will find that what I am advocating now is precisely what that Committee stated. But owing to the fact of these rules going to arbitration, they were so utterly mutilated and destroyed that a further Departmental Committee was set up last year and reported this year. The Departmental Committee of which my right hon. Friend was a member stated, that in itself electricity constituted no inherent danger, but at the same time that where gas was present the use of electricity should not be allowed. There is no question about it, there has not yet been a single motor constructed which is gas-tight. No doubt they are sold on the market as such. When a motor starts to work, a heat temperature arises in the motor, and the heat is driven out of the motor along the shaft journals and comes out through the journals into the atmosphere of the mine. When the temperature of the motor again cools the motor breathes in the gas through the journals and along the shaft into the motor itself. According to the discussions in the electrical and technical institutes all the electrical engineers are agreed that a gas-tight motor has not been discovered. A motor has been invented in Germany and is used in German mines, in which when the gas gets inside the motors the explosion takes place inside and is not communicated to the outside atmosphere.


The recommendation of the Committee with regard to motors was that all motors should be so constructed that the rubbing contact should be so arranged as to prevent open sparks.


I do not think anyone has had more trouble with the Home Office than I have on this question of electricity, and I know that there is no such thing on the market to-day as a gas-tight motor. If you are going to say that naked lights shall not be used in a mine where there is more than 1¼ per cent. of fire-damp, what is the use of taking into that mine a motor where you are bound sooner or later to cause danger owing to numerous causes connected with the use of electricity, the conditions of which are so absolutely different from what they are on the surface that you never can make the same provision for preventing open sparking as you can on the surface. In this Clause you are protecting the lives and giving additional security against something which the men throughout the country hardly without exception regard as the most dangerous thing introduced into mines for many years. What is the view of the inspectors? Of course I am not entitled to say in this House what an inspector has personally said to me, unless the information has been publicly given, but I will say that every inspector of mines to-day regards the advent of electricity into mines with the greatest amount of alarm, and that view is shared by all the men themselves. With regard to the owners, I am associated in my daily life with this industry, and I have not yet met a single owner in any part of the United Kingdom who wants to work a motor where a mixture of gas is present. Does the hon. Member opposite seriously ask that motors should be allowed to work in mines where there is a mixture of gas?


Yes, for lighting mines.


That matter has already been dealt with, and it has nothing to do with this question. The reason I ask the Committee to accept the Bill as it is drawn is that we discussed this question at enormous length in Committee, and it was only opposed by the electrical industry, who do not know what they are talking about so far as the conditions in mines are concerned. No sane manager of a mine would introduce what might at anytime cause open sparking. No manager desires to take that risk. But there are certain madmen who wish to take electricity into mines and use motors in mines where gas is present. There was a very serious explosion not very long ago, where it was proved in evidence that 2 or 3 per cent. of gas was present, and that electric coal-cutters were actually being used there. Surely the House will not sanction the using of an agency of such great danger in any part of a mine where you are nearly reaching the point of an explosive mixture, because if you have 3 per cent. of gas it may rapidly become 6 per cent. I have taken a deep interest for the last ten years in this subject, and a much deeper interest than any other hon. Member of this House. I was at first regarded as a fanatic when I told the Home Office and the Departmental Committee that I was perfectly convinced unless something was done in regard to the use of electricity that we should some day have one of those terrible calamities which would hurl hundreds of men to their death.

I am not going to mention specific cases, but I think one of the great calamities which has recently taken place in this country was due to electricity. Therefore I ask the House, with all the emphasis I can possibly use, not to delete this Clause, which I am sure will be an additional safeguard to an industry into which this new danger has been imported. Those who supported the use of electricity in mines in the early days had to take the risk because we did not understand the problem, but now it is so well-known that the so-called unknown dangers can be properly guarded against by regulations. In addition, I want Parliament to set up a definite standard above which motors shall not be allowed to be used in mines. I hope the House will reject this Amendment, and thus enable this industry to carry on its operations, not as the representatives of the miners ask, namely, that the use of electricity should be abolished altogether, but allow it to be used only under such conditions where a naked light in mines is used at the present time.


I have had a communication from certain electrical manufacturers, and I replied that I did not sufficiently understand what would be the danger point in a mine, and that I had made up my mind not to pledge myself until I had heard the discussion in the House of Commons. I think that is a reasonable attitude to take up. I do not quite agree with the hon. Baronet who has just spoken when he says, that all those who use motors and other electrical apparatus are madmen.


I said where gas is present.


There can be no doubt the hon. Baronet has had great experience in mines, and with regard to what may be regarded as safe and what may be regarded as dangerous. I understand the hon. Baronet later on proposes to alter the percentage from 2½ to some larger figure. I am almost inclined to think, after listening to the arguments, there is a great deal to be said against the use of electricity in parts of mines where there is a certain percentage of gas. Therefore, there is a great deal to be said against the withdrawal of the Clause. I can quite understand electrical manufacturers rather object to anything which will curtail their business, but what we have to consider is not the advantage of a particular industry, but whether injury may accrue or arise to people working in the mines. Subject to what the Under-Secretary may say, I have rather come to the conclusion it would not be safe to delete the Sub-section.


I want to say, on behalf of the workmen that they may differ on many things, but although there are over a million of them there is no difference of opinion with regard to this question, which has been fully debated at a national conference. The greatest dread amongst miners to-day is of electricity being introduced into the mine at all. When you are going deeper depths, and when you are having this danger to contend with, there is no wonder at the miners being alarmed. That alarm has been increased and intensified by two catastrophes. My hon. Friend the Member for one of the Divisions of Durham, myself, and two others attended an inquiry, which lasted over six days, where over 160 men were killed through an explosion, and, if the Chief Inspector of Mines for England to-day could give his opinion with regard to it, I dare venture to say he would agree with the conclusion to which we came, and to which one of the greatest electricians in this country came, that the explosion at West Stanley, in Durham, was the result of electricity. We have had something to do at some places to keep the men at work at all where they have been introducing these electrical machines. At one colliery in my own county the men complained that the electrical coal-cutting machines were giving off sparks and flames. I called the attention of the inspector, Mr. Stokes, to it, and he went to the mine and found the men's statement was quite correct. There are thousands and tens of thousands of respectable and careful men whose eyes are upon the Government in this matter. The safety of our men is more important than that you should have electrical cutting machines or electricity introduced in mines under dangerous conditions. Give us all the safeguards you can and give the men the assurance that when they go down the mine they are going to be protected by the power of the law and that their lives shall not be destroyed.


I am sure the Mover and Seconder of this Amendment did not intend to convey the impression that on such a Bill as this we should pay any attention whatever to the demands of the electrical industry. Our sole concern is with the safety of the mine, and, if we are quite convinced that some such provision as this is necessary in the interests of the safety of the mines, the electrical industry will have to adapt itself to that limitation. I am sure anyone who supported this Motion would agree with that general statement. I cannot accept the omission of this Sub-section, because from all the evidence I have been able to obtain, both before the Committee decided on this Sub-section and in my interviews with my divisional inspectors and others since, they all maintain the general position which the hon. Baronet the Member for the Mansfield Division (Sir A. Markham) has put so ably to the House, that, with the best provision in the world, there is danger where you have electricity of producing what would be similar to a naked light, especially in a coal mine.

Hon. Members will remember the disaster some years ago where, although it was proved electricity had nothing to do with it, there was evidence to show the coal-cutting machine was giving off sparks in gas. Certainly, until some much more elaborate possibilities are before the electrical industry than at the present time, I think we ought clearly to lay down at least the same standard for working electrical machines in a mine as we have for the use of the naked light in a mine. That, I understand, is the effect of the Amendment of the hon. Baronet. It may be said we are in a sense providing for this in our regulations. We are providing new and drastic regulations which, I am glad to say, will be accepted by the coal-owners without arbitration, and certainly in those regulations we do very largely apply the standard which we are now putting into a general Sub-section. Such rules provide that the pressure shall be cut off from any motor when the safety lamp shows any indication of the presence of fire-damp. That raises an old controversy as to what the indication of fire-damp is in a safety lamp. It has been a very fruitful subject of controversy, and even of legal prosecution. I suggest it would be far better if we adopted the standard of the withdrawal of the men. Where we cannot use naked lights the mines should be cut off from the electrical machinery. It should not be allowed to be worked until the district affected is free of gas. I do not think that that is an extravagant demand to make on the users of electrical machines. I would suggest that the Amendment be withdrawn.


I think there is a very much greater measure of agreement on this matter than would appear on the face of it. In Committee this was moved, and the Government opposed it. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, who has now moved the omission, will withdraw his Amendment in favour of the Amendment of the hon. Baronet the Member for the Mansfield Division. I quite understand the point the hon. Baronet has made. He told us that he desires that the use of electricity in mines should be conducted under absolute conditions of safety from the point of view of all concerned. But the point we are dealing with at the present moment would make it almost impossible to use electricity in a mine at all. We know perfectly well that conditions differ in dry and dusty mines as against damp mines. Therefore it is far more important that matters of this description should be dealt with by regulations. Sub-section (4) provides for such regulations, and I certainly should have thought the matter could be dealt with better by regulations than by Act of Parliament. I put this forward as a solution of the difficulty, which would be far more satisfactory than the present proposal.

Viscount WOLMER

I hope my hon. Friend will be induced to withdraw this Amendment. Let us at any rate be on the safe side, whatever may be the imperfection of modern conditions. Why should we have this additional percentage of danger introduced into our mines? It has been said that it is the duty of the inspectors to see that the machinery is in perfect working order, so that no danger may arise, but I would submit that it is quite possible for machinery to get out of gear during the intervals between the visits of the inspectors, and the result under this proposal would be that the men working in the mine would be liable to disaster. I earnestly hope that my hon. Friend will see fit to withdraw his Amendment. We want to make sure, as far as possible, of the safety of the lives of the miners. We are not so much concerned with the prosperity of the electrical engineering industry. We ought not to introduce a new element of risk into our mines—an element which will cause terrible uneasiness and a lack of confidence among the miners, together with a fear of appalling disaster.


I want to know exactly what are the intentions of the Government. The Under-Secretary, in his closing observations, indicated that there was a willingness on the part of the Government to accept the proposal of the hon. Baronet the Member for the Mansfield Division. If that is so, I shall not complain; I am one of those who think that this Sub-section might well have been left out of the Bill, and dealt with by special rules. If we had adopted that course we could from time to time have varied the regulations relating to the use of electricity in mines without being compelled to come to Parliament for legislative sanction. Speaking as a practical miner, I believe that would have been the best course to have adopted. While I am not suggesting that the users of electricity should be placed in a worse position than those who are using naked lights, I certainly do suggest that they should be put into practically the same position, and I shall not object to the course suggested by the Under-Secretary being taken. I have a very strong preference indeed, on my own account, for wishing that this Sub-section should be left out of the Bill altogether, and that the matter should be dealt with by special rules rather than that we should be compelled, in the event of any alteration being desirable in the conditions governing the use of electricity in mines, to come back to the House of Commons for further instructions. I shall certainly support the Amendment of my hon. Friend.


I am not opposing this with any desire to prejudicially affect the electrical engineering industry. But there are two sides to every question. We should not desire to put any Clause into the Bill which would unduly interfere with the working of the mine. By putting this particular Clause into the Bill and not allowing the matter to be settled by regulations, we may at once stop work in a mine where the work is dependent on the light. In a very large number of mines at the present time electricity is used for the purposes of lighting, and we have been given to understand that incandescent lamps can be safely used therein. We do not wish to put anything into the Act which would change that situation and stop the work in an unnecessary manner. It appears to me that all this can be very well provided for toy regulations. I cannot understand how it is that the attitude of the Government has changed since we were in Committee on this Bill. It appears to me there are plenty of safeguards in this Clause without this particular Subsection. Sub-section (1) provides that, Electricity shall not be used in any part of a mine where, on account of the risk of explosion of gas or coal dust, the use of electricity would be dangerous to life. Then we have arbitration provided for in case the mine-owner does not agree with the inspector. It is also laid down that the use of electricity shall stop until a decision is arrived at.


May I point out that in all cases where the Home Office has gone to arbitration, especially in regard to mines where explosions are continually occurring, the Home Office have always been beaten.


I would point out that Sub-section (3) lays down that electricity shall not be used until the arbitration is over and we must assume that the arbitrator in these cases has fairly heard the evidence of each party and come to a just conclusion. Sub-section (4) says that the use of electricity in any mine shall be subject to the general regulations under this Act. It has already been pointed out that people are all the time exercising their brains to try and arrive at fresh inventions and to improve electricity, and if we pass this particular Sub-section as it stands it will not enable us to make the improvements more easy to be used in mines without another Act of Parliament or an Amendment to this Bill. It is much better that this sort of thing should be arranged by regulations than by a strict Clause in a Bill.


One of the difficulties we have to contend with when one has no technical knowledge of these matters is that we have to be guarded by those who have thorough knowledge of the circumstances. When it comes to a Division the responsibility rests upon us of taking what we believe to be the really safe course. In such circumstances one has a tendency to vote in such a sense as shall be absolutely safe. The statement of the Under-Secretary rather confuses the issue so far as men like myself are concerned. He lays down the proposition that electricity shall not be used except under conditions in which it is not dangerous to use a naked lamp. Yesterday it was clearly shown that it was not safe to have naked lamps in almost every mine. Exceptional conditions must obtain before a naked light can safely be used, yet the Under-Secretary lays down the proposition that electricity should not be used excepting where a naked lamp can safely be used. I should like to ask the Under-Secretary what would happen in the case of electrically driven fans in mines? What is to happen when the electricity is withdrawn and the fans are at a standstill?


Under the Bill the main ventilating fan is bound to be on the surface.


That answer is satisfactory and comprehensive. I was not aware that the electrically driven fans were only used above the surface. The Sub-section the Government propose to retain recites that the amount of inflammable gas is not to exceed½per cent. or upwards. I do not know why the words "or upwards" are necessary. If it exceeds½per cent. it must be upwards. It is stated that the½per cent. is the condition obtaining at present in connection with naked lamps. I understand that naked lamps are used when there is a much greater volume of gas. I should like to have some guidance on these points. As to the difficulty of adapting electrical appliances to the altered conditions proposed by the Bill, surely the electrical inventors can find some way of making this apparatus absolutely safe. It is intolerable that when working on the face an electrically driven machine should be throwing off sparks into dust, and possibly gas. From what we know of electrical engineers, I should think they would fasten upon this difficulty and succeed in clearing it up. If the Under-Secretary will make the point clear as to what he means in connection with the½per cent. I shall be very grateful.


The suggestion made by the hon. and gallant Member (Colonel Hickman) as to the change in the Bill since it left Committee is rather unreasonable. I know from some experience that there is no Member in this House engaged in the coal industry who is more humane and more desirous of avoiding accidents, and who goes a longer way to accomplishing it than the hon. and gallant Member himself. The desire of the Committee was that this matter should be looked at from the point of view that you were dealing with a subject which, as yet, is not thoroughly understood, and that while you were dealing with it it is well to keep fairly on the safe side. Those of us who voted for the Sub-section in Committee did so because we believed we were taking the safe course, even against the advice of the Government at that time. I am pleased that the Government have hesitated to pursue the course they took before the Committee. That is in harmony with what should be the correct position of the Government where human life is at stake, as it is in this case. The recent accidents, and there have been several alarming accidents, while they have shaken the faith of engineers and colliery owners and the general public in electricity, have struck terror into the colliers themselves. I have presided over a large gathering or two in relation to this Bill, and this was discussed. It is no use belittling this question. These men have had fathers, brothers and relations slain in large numbers, and when they see this electricity being applied at the coal face you can scarcely wonder that they regard it with horror. I am satisfied that it is the desire of every Member of the House to guard against these unforeseen dangers, and until electricity is better understood the Government will do well to pause and to make regulations. At present the most up-to-date electricians are not sanguine that you are safe in going forward, and there is a very large volume of opinion that electricity ought not to be worked at the face, and I agree that it is the act of a madman to put it in any pit where gas is given off. I regret that there is a suggestion that the percentage of gas should be raised. I know there is no test as yet and I am not going to stand in the way of the Amendment, because it is preferred at any rate to the course suggested by my hon. Friend opposite in deleting this Clause, because, after all, however we may measure these questions inside this House, the great mass of men who are called upon to get their living under these circumstances do not feel as Members of Parliament feel as we sit here; but they feel that there is a danger, and they dread it, because this is a question which is not thoroughly understood, and I think the House will do well to pause before inflicting on them what they regard so suspiciously.


I agree that the use of electricity is very dangerous. As a general rule I am not in favour of referring the decision of questions of this sort to the Home Office, preferring rules to be laid down by Parliament; but I think this is an exceptional case. I think the question of the use of electricity is in such a transition state that in this case it is much better to leave it to regulations to be made from time to time.


As the Home Secretary has indicated that he will accept the Amendment of the hon. Baronet, I withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


I beg to move, to leave out the words "one-half" ["one-half per cent. or upwards"], and to insert instead thereof the words "one and one-quarter."

The object of the Amendment is to put electricity on the same level as naked lights. I put it down originally, having no knowledge of mining, very tentatively and diffidently, but I am fortified by seeing that one who has such expert knowledge as the hon. Baronet (Sir A. Markham) has put down a similar Amendment. I would not have moved it had I not been assured beforehand that the question of risk with regard to electricity is precisely the same as the risk with regard to naked lights, and under these circumstances I cannot see why the use of electricity should be penalised in any way as compared with the use of naked lights.


I beg to second the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: Leave out the words "or upwards" ["one-half per cent. or upwards"].

Leave out the words "one-half" ["or shall not exceed one-half per cent."], and insert instead thereof the words "one and a-quarter."—[Sir A. Markham.]