HC Deb 18 May 1938 vol 336 cc518-46

9.1 p.m.

Mr. Batey

I wish to raise the very important question of the use of electricity in coal mines. I am sorry that the Secretary for Mines cannot be present, but in trying to arrange this matter with him, I found that he had an important engagement into which he had entered before he knew of my intention to raise the question, and therefore, I make no complaint about his absence. I wish to thank the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Captain Margesson), who is a very able representative both of the Secretary for Mines and of the Government, for having consented to listen to the Debate, and to say a few words at the end. Yesterday, I put a question to the Secretary for Mines asking whether he would take steps to make it illegal to use electricity to drive machines in coal mines. His answer was a short one: it was "No, Sir." In a supplementary question, the Minister expressed the opinion that before anything was done in a matter such as this, he ought to have the report of the Royal Commission which is considering the question of the safety regulations. In my opinion, it is not wise for the Government to await the Royal Commission's report before dealing with this important matter.

When we have explosions in mines, with the loss of many lives, they stagger the whole country, and I venture to say that if, immediately after one of those explosions, we discussed the matter in the House, every hon. Member, no matter to what party he belonged, would be in favour of trying to see whether some way could not be found for preventing those explosions. There was the Gresford explosion, where so many lives were lost, and following that, the Government came to the conclusion that there must be a Royal Commission to inquire into the question of safety in mines. The Gresford explosion occurred in 1934, and at the Election, the Government had that policy. In December of that year, they set up the Royal Commission to inquire into safety in mines. So far, the Royal Commission has not reported. Last year, in January, there was an explosion at Markham colliery, with the loss of nine lives, and last week the country was again staggered by an explosion that took place at Markham, with the loss of 89 lives. The occurrence of these explosions makes it essential that the Government should take this question into consideration at once to see whether anything can be done to prevent them. Some of us believe that one of the great dangers in connection with coal mining to-day arises from the use of electricity in mines. The use of electricity is something new in coal mining. It is new in the sense that it is how being used at the coal face where there is always so much gas. The introduction of electricity in that way is, I believe, an added cause of danger and involves one of the gravest risks experienced by those engaged in mining.

One strong argument why the Government should not wait until the Royal Commission report is this: As hon. Members may know, there is a remarkable difference between the accident rate in coal mines in France, and that in Great Britain. The Department of Mines recently did a very wise thing in sending the Deputy Chief Inspector to make an investigation in France. His report was issued last October—Command Paper No. 5566. I confine myself at present to that part of the report which deals with explosions in coal mines arising from electricity. In his comparison between Great Britain and France in this respect, the Deputy Chief Inspector, on page 16 of the report, says: ELECTRICITY. Herein lies, in part, an obvious explanation for the higher accident rate from explosions in this country. Whereas, during the period under review electricity was the cause of 17 explosions and 86 deaths in Great Britain, only one accident, resulting in one death, which occurred at an electrically driven pump, was so caused in France.…The explanation of the almost negligible accident rate from this cause in France is to be found in the fact that electricity is little used underground, other than for pumping and chiefly near downcast shafts. I wish to draw special attention to those words. It makes an enormous difference whether the electricity is used near the downcast shaft, or whether it is used at the coal face, perhaps a mile or two "in by." The report adds: The use of electrically-driven coal-face machinery is practically unknown, though some gate conveyors are electrically driven. Then on page 8 of the report we find this: Though the natural conditions in France are not suitable for the extensive application of coal-face machinery, as widely practised in Great Britain, the ventilation standard limits the use of electricity in this connection, and, as is shown elsewhere in this report, the almost complete absence of the use of eltectric power at the coal face is an important contributory factor to the lower explosion death rate. Dealing with explosions generally, the report states: It will be observed that for the ten years 1925–34 the French death rate from explosions was less than one-third that of Great Britain. Figures are also given which show that the number of explosions in France for that period was n, resulting in 58 deaths, while in Great Britain in the same period, there were 117 explosions resulting in 753 deaths. The report of the Secretary for Mines for 1936—the last available—shows that in that year there were 64 deaths in coal mines as a result of explosions arising from electricity. There is abundant evidence to convince the Government that the time has come to do something to prevent a continuance of this appalling loss of life. We ought not to be asked to wait month after month. We recognise that the Royal Commission has undertaken a big task and that it cannot do its work in a hurry, but that is no reason why the Government should delay to deal with some of these important and urgent questions. As I have already said, last week's explosion staggered the country and made Members of all parties in this House feel that something ought to be done at once. Apparently it has been found possible to get over this trouble in France. Why should it not be possible to deal with it here also? I have raised this question to-night because it is not possible to deal with a subject of this kind by way of supplementary questions and because I am anxious that the Government should take some action to put an end to these recurrent disasters.

9 14 p.m.

Mr. James Griffiths

We are obliged tonight to the hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey), as we so often are in this House, for the use which he as a skilled Parliamentarian has made of this opportunity to raise this very important question. We regret the fact that the Secretary for Mines is not here, but we understand the reason for his absence and we do not blame him. We also thank the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury for being in attendance to note what we have to say. We are not raising this matter because we have no confidence in the Royal Commission on Safety in Mines. On that Commission are representatives of both sides in the industry who have a long and intimate knowledge of the industry. But we feel that we have some right to complain about what appears to be a growing tendency in the Mines Department and on the part of the Secretary for Mines to say: "Wait until the Commission has reported." It is a very dangerous procedure to leave urgent matters, which call for immediate attention, on one side until a commission reports.

We must remember that this Commission has before it an immense task. The last Commission which dealt with this question, prior to the introduction of the 1911 Act, lasted for four years. Anyone who looks at that 1911 Act knows that the Commission has before it a tremendous task, and none of us wants to hurry them to accomplish it quickly. At the same time we do think that these questions which are coming up at the present time call for serious consideration and that whatever administrative action can be taken now, before the Commission completes its herculean task, should be taken. We are becoming accustomed in these days to sudden and catastrophic deaths. I heard a fine phrase the other day, that we stand in this age in danger of seeing all the gains of civilisation overwhelmed in this wave of violence that has come over the world. It is because we have become so accustomed to violence of all forms that perhaps our sensibilities are becoming rather dulled. An old collier, with whom I worked as a boy once said to me, "My boy, if ever I am fated to be killed in the pit, as I may be"—and tragically enough in the end he was—"I hope I shall be killed one of a hundred and not on my own, because much more fuss will be made of me, and my wife will be much better off afterwards."

It is only when something happens in a catastrophic way that the country is roused, and I am sure that we are but doing our duty to our men, when it does happen in this catastrophic way, in taking advantage of this stirring of public opinion to call attention to it while the public and the House are in the mood to listen to us. since 1920, since the end of the War, nearly 18,000 men have been killed in the mines of this country, and 2,500,000 have been injured. We read with horror in the papers every day of deaths all over the world, and perhaps we give too little attention to the deaths that take place at our very doors day in and day out. Now comes this last explosion, a kind of explosion that is happening very frequently nowadays. In reply to a question which I put to the Secretary for Mines yesterday, he said that between the beginning of 1930 and the end of 1937 there had been 91 colliery explosions in this country. That means an explosion every month in those eight years, and on the experience of this year, it will be, if anything, above rather than below the average for the last eight years. We have prided ourselves in this country that in the matter of the protection of the working man we have led the world, but on this question of avoiding explosions in mines we are not leading the world in these days, but are lagging behind.

I have no technical qualifications as such, but I had experience in the pit for 17 years as a coal miner myself, as boy and man, and ever since I left the pit some years ago I have had an intimate daily association with the mining industry. I think that very often the nontechnical experience, the experience of the practical man, ought to be brought to bear on this problem. In many ways I think the pits were safer to work in the old days when the officials were appointed for their practical knowledge and common sense, rather than for their certificates. Here we are, faced with this problem of electricity in the pits, and I am sure that it is the element of electricity and the things which machine-mining brings in its train which are the important new factors which have to be borne in mind and which, I am sure, the Royal Commission will find in the end to be one of the gravest problems that we have to face in the mining industry.

I shall never forget an opportunity which I had of visiting that first-class research station at Buxton, on an arranged tour in connection with the South Wales Miners' Federation. There, on the quiet of a summer's Sunday morning, at half-past eight, we saw an explosion staged. This summer Members of the House are going to see a demonstration of television, one of the wonders of the age. Might I suggest to the Patronage Secretary and to the Secretary for Mines that Members might also be taken to see one of the tragedies of the age, that they might be taken to Buxton to see a coal-mine explosion from coal dust staged? Let them stand on the hillside, with no fire-damp, no gas, with conditions almost as perfect as coal-mining conditions can be, and see an explosion from coal dust. You see it coming out, first a huge flame, which stretches for 100 yards, and then a thick smoke and the fire-damp. This is what kills our own kith and kin who produce the coal which we need. Who does not feel the better for it when he goes into the Library of this House and stands by the fire? Well, let him remember the man who pays the penalty for that.

We saw an experiment at Buxton, where, in a laboratory or workshop, they had a container in which they reproduced the atmosphere of a pit, an air containing 2½ per cent. of firedamp. We were told, "We will show you what kind of flame is required to explode that firedamp." First of all, they had a piece of paper which they lit and put in this explosive atmosphere, and we waited until the flame on the paper got larger and larger, and there was a distinct interval before it exploded the firedamp. Then we were shown how long it would take for sparks in a pit to explode firedamp, and there was again an appreciable interval before the explosion. Next they brought a tiny electric battery, and one tiny spark, which we could not detect with the naked eye, caused an explosion. That brought home to us the fact that when you bring electricity into the pit, the tiniest spark that no one can see, you are bringing in something which can produce one of these terrible explosions.

What occurred at Gresford we may never know, because the district in which the explosion occurred is sealed, but here this tiny spark comes in. The number of men killed in an explosion is a matter of luck—it depends on how many men there are in the pit at the time—but we know that modern colliery explosions have become so violent that the number of people rescued is getting less. We notice that the number of people who come out alive gets smaller and smaller at each explosion. The number killed depends on the number who are there. No engineer will ever convince me that a coal mine can be made safe enough to bring an electric spark into it. We have found that of the 91 explosions that have taken place in the eight years from 1931 to 1937 45 were in collieries where all the coal cutting and conveying machinery is driven by electricity and, of the others, 12 occurred where the machinery is driven by electricity and by compressed air, so that in 57 out of the 91 mines electricity was used. Those facts have to be explained.

We are all familiar in a small way with electrical apparatus in our homes. We know how easy it is to break it up and at how many points there may be leakages, and every tiny leak contains the germ of a horrible, devastating explosion. There is not only electrically-driven machinery but there is the enormous growth of shot-firing, which has now become easier because of electricity. That is part of the trouble with electricity, that it makes everything so much easier but at the same time so much more dangerous. Millions of shots a year are fired with cables 30, 40 or 50 yards long, by means of which current is taken right to the coal face, with all the possibilities of leakage and the danger of ignition. Then the advent of machinery is changing the method of mining.

The miner is the true pioneer in this world. Every day, as he cuts away yard by yard of coal, he goes where no man has been before. He does not know what the next yard holds in store. He is really the prospector, the pioneer who adventures into the dark each day. In the old mining days, when each man worked in his own stall and cut his roadway, ventilation was better. Now we have these new-fangled notions. The Secretary for Mines has told us that in 45 of the 91 collieries where explosions have taken place strip packing was adopted or there was no packing at all. Every miner knows what that means. You have long distances behind in which there is no packing and where there are accumulations of firedamp, and there is pressure driving it forward to the coal face. These are the conditions under which the new marvel of the age, the terrible danger to the miner, electricity, is brought in.

We may have to wait, perhaps we ought to wait, a few more months for the report of the Royal Commission. Perhaps we ought to give them time. At the same time steps ought to be taken now. There is reason to suspect that electricity may be at the root of these explosions. Are we asking too much in asking that until the Commission completes its task the use of electricity shall be stopped? There is another factor which impresses me very much. Prior to the advent of modern machine-mining, perhaps because of the kind of coal that was worked, South Wales was one of the worst districts. I vividly remember an explosion in which there was a death roll of 400 sent to eternity on one shift. In recent years South Wales has been comparatively better off because relatively little electricity is used to drive the machinery. Compressed air can drive machinery and it does in South Wales. I am told that the cost is a little higher, but if you put the loss of life into the balance there is a case for the suspension of the use of electricity until the Commission has reported. The tragic story goes on month by month.

I think we have been fully justified in raising the matter and in expressing the hope that the Secretary of Mines will consult with his inspectors immediately and take such interim action as is possible by administration to stop some of the worst practices, and then we shall live in the hope that when the Commission has reported something of a fundamental character will be done to make the pits as safe as they can be made.

9.35 p.m.

Mr. Tinker

I make no apology for rising in this Debate, for I believe that we should take every opportunity of bringing this matter before the House. I remember coming down Kingsway on Tuesday last week and seeing a newspaper vendor put out a new placard. It said: "Colliery explosion, feared loss of life." When a miner sees a thing like that he wonders at once what has happened, and a vivid picture comes to his mind of the long airways and underground tunnels where he knows that if an explosion has taken place it is a death trap and nobody can expect to come out alive. Then he wonders in what part of the coalfield it has happened and whether it is in his district, but he knows that wherever it is there has been loss of human life. Then he wonders what the cause of it is. To every miner two things come uppermost in his mind— shot firing and electricity. Then he naturally goes on to ask himself, "What can be done to avoid these explosions?"

We have taken this opportunity to describe to the House as vividly as we can what such explosions mean and what we think can prevent them. My two hon. Friends have spoken for other parts of the coalfield—one for Durham and one for South Wales. I come from Lancashire, which is as highly mechanised as any other part of the coalfield. Electricity obtains in every mine and we get constant reports of what takes place. In cutting, coal miners use a long wheel or disc that undercuts the coal. Sometimes in the coal there is a hard substance called iron pyrites which is harder than the coal. When the disc strikes this substance a flame comes out. Men have described to me many times how they have seen this flame. There is no checking the machine, for there is a certain amount of work to do and it goes on, regardless of what it means, tearing its way through the coal. If the flame comes when there happens to be any gas about there is an explosion. If there is no gas, fire is often set up and the whole coal face becomes alight. One can imagine that if there is any sign of gas there is bound to be an explosion owing to the consequent picking up of the coal dust. All this is made worse by the use of electricity.

We are trying to-night to stir up not only the House of Commons but the nation to do something in regard to this matter. I want the appeal to become so intense that the coalowners will be driven to do something. When I heard the Secretary for Mines the other day voicing sympathy with those who suffered loss in the recent explosion, I felt the surge of sympathy going through every Member in the House. I thought, "That is very good, but cannot they do something in this matter?" It is not sufficient that we should have a wave of sympathy when an explosion takes place and to leave it at that. It is not sufficient to get up a public subscription to relieve the people who are suffering. That does not meet the situation. What we want, and what we are trying to get, is something effective to prevent the deplorable loss of fife which takes place so often in our coalfields. We are satisfied that it can be done. It might not be on the particular lines suggested by my hon. Friends, but we ought not to rest until some strong and urgent steps are taken.

I would like hon. Members opposite to go to Buxton some Sunday morning, as my hon. Friend has suggested, and if you could spare the time, Mr. Speaker, I would like you to go also, because I feel you could help us in this matter. What I have seen there is one of the most terrible things I have witnessed in my life with all my knowledge of pit work. It is well worth anyone's time to go and see what can happen when an explosion takes place. I remember going last summer with a party of boys from St. Helens Mining School, where we teach them the dangers of mining. We took them to Buxton to show them what can happen when an explosion takes place so that they would get pit sense and learn not to tamper with the various things that can cause an explosion. There was a blast which almost scorched us, and one boy said, "I will never go down a pit again after what I have seen." What he saw at Buxton left such a vivid impression on his mind that he was determined not to go down again. I feel satisfied that if hon. Members on the other side went to Buxton they would be as eager as we are to-night in trying to do everything possible to prevent this kind of thing happening. We believe that if electricity is taken from the mines it may not prevent explosions in all instances, but it will go a long way to make the mines safer than they are at present. We hope that the Royal Commission will find that the time has come when electricity must be taken from the mine until it can be used in a way that it cannot cause trouble. I recognise that electricity is a great potential force, but at the moment it has not been found to be safe for the mines. Until means can be provided to prevent the dangers it causes it ought not to be taken into the deadly atmosphere of fire damp.

9.44 p.m.

Mr. Cape

I do not apologise to the House for joining in this Debate. I suppose that I have had the most unique experience of any man in regard to explosions. It has been my unfortunate lot to have to go into pits on seven occasions after explosions, and I have had to do a good deal of rescue work and in searching for bodies that have probably been left in a pit for weeks. Even after all those experiences I could not describe to the House all the horrors of a colliery explosion. It is beyond the power of any man who has never seen them to imagine what they are like. I have taken part in a good many inquiries into the case of explosions both in my own county and in South Wales, and while I am not prepared to say that all those explosions were caused by electricity, I am satisfied in my own mind that shot-firing and the use of electricity are two of the gravest dangers in the mines to-day.

That can be proved by what has happened in recent years—proved not by the explosions but by what has been done by the Mines Department and the Mining Research Board. I had the privilege of being a member of that board for some years, and I want to pay a tribute to the many eminent scientists who were on the board during my time. They used their skill and knowledge to try to find ways and means of preventing explosions caused by shot-firing and the use of electricity. From time to time the Mines Department have issued a large number of orders regarding the use of electricity in mines, with the object of introducing safeguards. That in itself is proof sufficient that everyone concerned with mining, either from a practical or from a scientific point of view, is satisfied that there is danger in the use of electricity. If there is not then why have so many regulations issued saying that this or that has to be done where electricity is in use?

In mining, Nature has provided more dangers than man can cope with, but some of the devices introduced by man have, unfortunately, tended to add to those dangers. The call for larger output and for progress in mining methods has caused men to devise ways and means of employing mechanical power to secure larger production, and electrical power has been introduced into the mines, and its use is extending every year. In the modern mine practically everything is electrified. In a good many pits the men descend and ascend by electricity, the haulage is electrified, there is electrical signalling apparatus. I would point out that only approved electrical signalling apparatus can be used, showing that even there precautions have to be taken to prevent the dangers arising from electricity. Shot-firing is largely done by electricity, and orders have been issued in recent years that only such batteries may be used for shot-firing as are approved by the Mines Department. Coal-cutting machines and conveyers are driven by electricity. In short, nearly everything in the modem pit is electrified. There is no scientist who is prepared to say that explosions cannot be caused by an electric spark. That has been proved time and again. An explosion in a coal mine is not like a fire in a house, where the spreading of the flames can be checked, because once the fatal spark has gone into an inflammable atmosphere in a mine, then, in the twinkling of an eye, as the hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) said, hundreds of men may be hurled into eternity.

Answering a question in the House the other day, the Secretary for Mines said that he could not take any action towards suppressing the use of electricity in mines until the Commission investigating the subject had presented its report. Under ordinary circumstances that would be a reasonable answer to give. If it were a question concerning unemployment benefit, for example, it would be quite proper for a Minister to say that he was awaiting the report of some Commission which was inquiring into it. This is a question of life and death, and cannot wait. If we are satisfied that electricity is a dangerous factor in mines it will be dangerous to-morrow, and might mean that 200 men will be hurled into eternity. If we are satisfied that shot-firing is a dangerous factor in mines we cannot wait for the report of the Royal Commission. These things are too serious, and affect human life in such a way that it is impossible to allow them to continue.

Very wide powers are possessed by the Secretary for Mines, or at least by his chief the President of the Board of Trade. Under the Coal Mines Act, 1911, they have power to issue orders for safety in mines. Nobody complains about that power, but as the Minister has power to issue regulations as to how electricity should be used and how shots should be fired, surely he has power to prevent those two dangers in the mines. It is very desirable to eliminate them altogether. Unless you do so, the dangers are still there. The number of persons killed by electricity in mines in this country is very alarming. I cannot give the actual figures now, but I can tell the House that in one small colliery in my division and which employs only 120 men, two men were killed this year by an electric cable. I lent a hand in conveying the bodies of the men from the pit to their homes. Another two men had a narrow escape. Everybody in the mines thought that all the necessary safety devices for the protection of the men had been provided. Again, four men were, not killed this time, but nearly killed, by a similar accident. Technical experts have tried to find out what caused the death of those men.

In these matters we have to consider the danger to the individual. Every man and boy working in a pit which is electrified faces the possibility of an explosion and is always in potential danger, even though he is not actually within the danger zone. I wish to add my plea to those which have been made by my hon. Friends that the Secretary for Mines and his experts should not wait for the report of the Royal Commission but should concentrate upon deciding whether electricity should or should not be eliminated altogether from the mines of this country.

10.1 p.m.

Mr. George Griffiths

We do not need to apologise for raising this question on the Adjournment. The only thing I feel sorry about is that there are not more Members present in the House.

Mr. Kirkwood

Even on our benches.

Mr. Griffiths

I have never been more moved by a speech than I was by that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths). It was a marvellous oration. It was something that came from his soul and not something that he read in a book. It was something that he had experienced. I know that it says somewhere in the Bible: One thing I know. He did not read it. He knew it. We men in the industry have some knowledge of these things. I thank the hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) for giving us the opportunity of putting this across. I express my thanks also to my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly. I am very pleased that he brought forward the experiments at Buxton. I have had experience of Buxton. I am pleased that I was one of the first members of the Miners' Welfare Committee to inaugurate the safety classes for mining boys from 14 years of age so that they should know something about the dangers of the mines.

I remember one little lad in Yorkshire at the pit where I worked. Somebody said to him down the pit: "Jack, what are you doing that for? Has nobody told thee about that danger?" The little lad's answer was: "Nobody has said anything to me about danger except my mother." That was something that wanted a remedy, and the classes for boys are an attempt to provide that remedy by giving the boys an insight into the dangers, both on the surface and below-ground. I remember going with my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Paling) to Buxton. We took 30 or 40 of the lads from our pit and the pits round about, and they saw an explosion. It was an instruction, a terrifying instruction, to the boys and to us as well. Not many men who have actually been working when an explosion has taken place are living to-day, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly said, fewer men come out of a pit alive to-day after an explosion than ever before. The percentage is smaller to-day than it has ever been.

Since I have been in this House four explosions have taken place in my division. Three were directly caused, I believe, by electricity and one was from another cause. I went to bed at half-past 10 at night about 12 months ago last August. When I got up in the morning my wife was downstairs before me, and she said: "George, one of the pits has gone up."—That is how our wives speak of explosions. They know what explosions mean.—" There are over 60 men down." I made my way to the pit as early as I could, but my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley, who is sitting here now, was there almost as quickly as myself, and he went down the pit. I wanted to go down at once, but they said to me, "George, in your state you had better stay here." If there is anything that I admire, it is the way in which, when anything like this happens, men race to get down the pit to their comrades. When I was in the office with one of the inspectors, we got the plan of the pit showing where the explosion had happened. One of my friends walked in, and said to me, "George, my lad is down there," and he asked one of the officials whether he might go down. The official said, "No, you had better not go down; you must stay here." Then, when they showed us the point in the plan, I said to my friend, "Charlie, where was your lad working last night?" He said that he was working at such-and-such a junction, and I said, "If he is working there, he is safe." It turned out later that the lad had been sent inbye about 600 yards, and when he came out of the pit he was unrecognisable. I shall never forget going into the school that day. There were 54 men lying in straw, covered with brown blankets. I said to the people in charge, "Can I see so-and-so?" I had known him all my life, but, when the blanket was turned down, I did not recognise him at all. It reminds me of another passage from the Bible, which I am not afraid to quote: I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I turned round to someone and said, "This is the price of coal." I am sorry that there are so few Members present in the House to-night, because we do not often get the opportunity of putting across our case. The total number killed in 1936 —the figure for 1937, which I cannot quote at the moment is even higher—was 890 men and boys. As I have said, the total for 1937 was higher still, and God alone knows what the figure for 1938 is going to be. We have just had 79 killed at one pit. They said that that pit was one of the safest, and that the management had done all they could to prevent things like this from happening. If that is the case, what are we to look forward to later? The total number killed in 1936 was 890, but, in addition, we have to remember, as my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Cape) has said, the number that are maimed.

The figures given in the report on compensation are most startling. Very few people take any notice of them, but we are compelled to take notice of them when we see the number of men who are on half wages for almost 12 months, and very often have to go to the Poor Law in order to get assistance to enable them to live. These are not cold-blooded figures to us, but actual facts. During the past five years, 968,682 persons were injured in the mines. In 1936, the total number of accidents was 180,893, affecting 34 per cent. of the men working. That means that one man in every four working in the pits gets hurt every year, or that the entire population of the mining industry meet with accidents in the course of four years. Electricity is an additional danger. I am not going to attempt to describe it. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly has done so, and I need not go over the ground again. But I felt, knowing something about this matter, and having worked in the pits for a good number of years, that it was not out of place that I should say a few words upon it.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Dunn

I should not like an occasion such as this to go by without adding my word to the appeal which has been under by my hon. Friend the Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey). Like other Members on this side of the House, I very much regret the absence from the Benches opposite of Members who constitute the Government, but at the same time I am glad that the Patronage Secretary is here. Undoubtedly he will take a note of this discussion and convey it to the proper quarter. I am glad also, as we all are, that our own Leader, the Leader of the Opposition, is on the Bench to hear the discussion. I do not profess to be able to put this case with nearly the same eloquence with which it was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Spennymoor, and also by my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths). I am sure that we as miners, and the country generally, are indebted to them both. I myself, unfortunately, have had the experience of passing through several of these explosions in coal mines, and, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. G. Griffiths), I happened to have had the experience of being in a coal mine at the time when the explosion occurred. It was due to good luck that I happen to be here to-night to make my contribution to this Debate. Of the six explosions of which I have had experience, I am confident in my own mind that five could either be traced to the use—or misuse—of electricity in the mine, or were caused by shot-firing. It is because I am so painfully conscious of the hazards that the miners are running in the coal mines of this country that I would like to say a word or two in support of my hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Hemsworth called attention to an explosion in which 58 men were killed. I happen to have seen the same machine, the electric machine which was the direct cause of that explosion. When 75 per cent. of explosions in the coal mines of this country are directly attributable either to the use of electricity or of shot-firing, every Member who is in the House at the moment, and those who are not, will, I am sure, feel indebted to us for raising this matter. In one of the explosions of which I happen "to have had experience—the Maltby Colliery explosion—I found that my youngest brother had lost his life, and his body has not been recovered. He went through the War, from 1914 to 1918, and came through safely; and then lost his life in an attempt to save a colliery from wreckage. In 1917, coal cutting was introduced into this mine—the Maltby Colliery in Yorkshire. It is true that the coal cutters were not electricalily driven. They were driven by compressed air. But I take the same view as my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker). Whether coal cutters are driven by electricity or by compressed air, my experience proves that if the seam is a gassy one, and if there is stone or rock within the seam, and if the teeth of the coal cutter come into contact with the "brass," or stone, and there is gas being emitted from that particular section of the seam, explosions will undoubtedly occur, whether electricity or compressed air is being used.

After 10 years' experience with coal cutters, we were successful, by trade union activity, in bringing every coal cutter out of the pit. From 1927 to the present time not a single ton of coal has been touched by machinery, and not a single shot has been fired in that pit. I am sure that my friends on this side will appreciate that side of it. But the main point I want to relate is this. The hon. Member for Spennymoor called attention of the report of the inspector who visited France. Ours is a deep and gassy mine. Every machine was brought out of the pit in 1927, and I am glad to say that the last fatal accident which took place at Maltby Colliery, which has an output of 1,000,000 tons a year, was nearly five years ago. Thus, one man has been killed while just under 5,000,000 tons of coal have been produced at that particular colliery. There has not been a single shot fired or a single ton of coal cut by machinery in that pit, and if one relates that to the national output of coal for 1937—and many of us thing that this is the explanation—800 men have been killed in the coal mines of this country who would not have been killed but for the introduction of machinery. Another important point is that, if that experience could be made applicable to the coal mines of the country generally, the fatality rate would have been less than the fatality rate in France at the present time. It is amazing that one is able to give an example of that kind.

I want to add a few words to the appeal which has been made by my hon. Friends for better control. I take the view particularly of my old friend the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Cape), who has had a very wide experience, that the mines could be carried on equally as well without coal-cutting by machinery and shot-firing. In the group of pits in the combine to which I have referred—they comprise five of the largest pits in South Yorkshire—I understand that the production per man employed where no machines are used is higher than that in the pits where machines are used. The wages earned by the men are higher than in the pits where machines are used whether these machines are driven by electricity or by compressed air, and the operating costs of the company are less per ton where machines are not used. Therefore, the production per man is higher, wages are higher per ton per man employed, and the production and operative costs are less where machines are not used than is the case in the pits where they are used, apart from the fact that the fatality rate for the last five years has been one man killed to just under 5,000,000 tons of coal produced. These are astounding facts which should be put before this House. I went to Buxton. It was an appalling experience. Hon. Members of this House are invited to see aeroplane displays and all sorts of things, but I would like every Member of his House to see Buxton in operation. Then I think the feelings of the people, not only in this House but in the country, may be stirred.

There are two other things that I should like to say, and one of them may be considered rather strong. I take the view that if the Coal Mines (Regulation) Act were carried out now in the coal mines, accidents would be diminished considerably. I assert that the Coal Mines (Regulation) Act is not being carried out and that the regulations applied to the uses of electricity in mines are not being applied in the way they ought to be. The strong thing that I want to say is this, and the miners take the same view. Together with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Lee) I attended the funeral of the 79 men killed last Saturday at the Markham Main Colliery. It is a tragic experience for any one to see coffin after coffin carried through the streets. The point I want to make is that after my experience, and following the appeal that has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Spennymoor, I say with no disrespect whatever to the Chief Inspector of Mines or to the inspectorate staff as a whole, that when the inquiry takes place into the disaster that has occurred at Markham Main Colliery the person who should conduct the inquiry should have judicial and technical qualifications, and should be separate and apart from the inspectorate staff attached to the Board of Trade and the Mines Department. Until we can do that, we shall not get to the root of the whole problem.

I also take the view, resulting from my experience, that until this country is prepared to deal harshly with the people who are not carrying out the provisions of the Coal Mines (Regulation) Act, and until this country is prepared to handle severely and charge with manslaughter some of the people responsible for running the pits, there will be nothing done of an effective character. I make my appeal, and I would ask that what has been said from these benches to-night will be conveyed to the appropriate authority. although the language used may have been strong in certain respects.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Lee

It has been suggested that hon. Members on the other side should go to Buxton to get an idea of what a colliery explosion is. May I suggest that they will get no real idea of a colliery explosion from what happens at Buxton. I do not decry what we are doing there, because I am a member of the Mines Research Board which has to do with Buxton; but when you get there you find a tunnel cut out of the rock, with two open ends, and a prepared explosion, but when you get into the confines of a pit, with no open ends, you get the full force of an explosion, which is an entirely different thing from something that is an arranged explosion at Buxton.

The memory of the explosion at Mark-ham Main is with me still. This is the fourth explosion of which I have had experience in recent years. With respect to the other three—the Markham Main explosion is sub judice—the cause of the explosion was electricity. I remember, 40 years ago, having a very strong argument with Mr. Stokes, an inspector of mines at that time, when he said that a coal-cutting machine could not produce a spark sufficient to light gas. I took him down a colliery and showed him that not only was it strong enough to light gas but that it was strong enough to set wood on fire. Then he believed that I was right. There has, of course, been a good deal of improvement in coal-cutting machinery since those days. At Buxton we have had tests in order to be sure that the machinery is flame-proof. I know it is difficult when you have the machine on the top to produce a flame, but when you get the machine down in the confines of a pit and it goes wrong, it is very difficult to repair it. Last January there was an explosion at the same colliery where the recent one took place. It was admitted that they had had some repairs done to the switchboard. When they put the machines back again it was found that in one part of the switchbox a gap had been left sufficient to let flames get through. No one in the pit could see that it was not in proper condition, but when it was at the top it was found that there was just space sufficient to let flames get through.

Electricity is a good servant but sometimes may be a bad master. We do all we can by means of the Safety in Mines Research Board. I have given credit to the colliery for what they have done, but I am sure that when your coal-cutting machines are driven by electricity there is such a potential danger that do what you may and be as careful as you may, where the human element has to come in, you will find that the human element fails and the machinery fails, and I do not think that in the confines of a pit you should put into human hands an element so potential of danger. I agree with my hon. Friends who suggest that the machines could be driven by compressed air, and I understand there is very little difference in cost between the two. I also agree that where you have the same kind of material in the coal, as you do sometimes, you may get a spark from the coal, and if you have gas you will still get an explosion. There is one thing in my mind about the recent explosion, and that is the wide area over which the explosion occurred. We came to the conclusion that explosions in the future would probably be confined to a small area, and that the consequent loss of life would be small, but this time the explosion is spread over a larger area. We have rules and regulations with regard to stone-dusting, and we have been told that if this is properly done it will stop the spread of an explosion; you may limit the area covered. I am not saying whether stone-dusting was done in this instance or not. There is evidence that it was done, but it did not confine the explosion to a small area which we thought would be the case. I say that electricity in any shape or form away from the pit bottom is a very great potential danger.

Some time ago there was an agitation in the country about the price of coal. It was said that the colliery owners were getting too much out of coal, and that miners' wages were so high that they were being extravagant. Then, when there is an explosion, as last week, for four or five days everybody sympathises with the miners. I heard one of my friends say that he would not go down a pit for £1,000. Expressions of sympathy have come from all sorts of people, from Herr Hitler down to the poorest of the poor. I heard that one little boy went into a shop the other day with twopence for sweets, but said to the shopkeeper, '' Give me a pennyworth to-day and send the other penny to the boys and girls who have lost their fathers at Markham." How long will this sympathy last? If you want to avoid these things—and I take it you do—then any potential danger must be removed from the mines. Coalmining will not be made the safe occupation that it ought to be until there is taken from the mines the potential danger which surrounds work of that description.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Whiteley

I think that every hon. Member who heard the Secretary for Mines answer the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Spenny-moor (Mr. Batey) last week was very deeply moved. I do not remember an occasion in the House when I had felt so strongly. Therefore, this Debate must necessarily bring 'the attention of the Government to matters relating to underground work in the mines at the present time. We have heard a good deal tonight about the experiments at Buxton with regard to the prevention of explosions caused by shot-firing. I remember that in 1917, Mr. Smillie, who was at one time a Member of the House, Mr. Herbert Smith, and I paid a visit to Eskmeals, when Dr. Wheeler was making experiments for the purpose of proving that stone-dusting would, if not absolutely, to a very large extent, eliminate explosions caused by shot-firing by the prevention of expansion.

A good deal of time has elapsed since 1917, and I think that the House, the country, and particularly the mining community, ought to have a report from the Secretary for Mines as to whether stone-dusting is being done on a general scale, and what is the experience with regard to it as compared with the time when stone-dusting was not in use. One of my hon. Friends has pointed out that the experiments at Buxton cannot compare with the situation in a mine, and I quite agree. The experiments at Eskmeals were similar. They were on above-ground work, but galleries were made so as to make them, as far as possible, similar to underground work. Nevertheless, they could not have the same experience above-ground as in underground workings. We also visited the Merthyr Vale collieries in Wales, the Normanton collieries, and the Washington colliery in Durham, in order to see the operation of stone-dusting in those collieries. It was felt in those days that stone-dusting would have a great effect in limiting the extent of accidents in mines due to shot-firing. We should have some information from the Secretary of Mines as to what progress has been made in that direction.

There is, of course, the added danger which has developed in recent years as a result of the introduction of electricity. The modern mine is not comparable with the mine of former days. There are all kinds of machinery in mines to-day— scrapers, cutters, fillers, and the like— and there is a tremendous noise which prevents men from hearing, as they could hear in the old days, the sound of timber cracking and other warnings of danger. Then, in these days, the electric spark is a centre of danger. The Mines Department and the Board of Trade ought to concentrate upon finding out whether there is not some alternative method which would obviate the tremendous dangers run by our people in the mines day after day. This Debate must call the attention of the Government to the kind of inquiry which has been rendered necessary to the latest disaster. That accident has created tremendous feeling in the country. We hope the inquiry which is to be carried out will be made by independent people and people of experience, able to dissect evidence and to find out the real cause of the accident and how it is possible to prevent such occurrences in future.

A great wave of feeling goes through the country when an explosion of this kind occurs. We, as miners, are very thankful for the generosity of the public in these cases, but we have reached the point of feeling that this kind of thing ought not to depend upon the public. There ought to be compensation reforms passed by Parliament which would guarantee to the widows and children of these men absolute security for the rest of their lives. That is one of the points to which we hope to direct attention on a future occasion. Our immediate purpose is to ask the right hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite to convey to the Secretary for Mines and the Board of Trade our strong feeling that this inquiry should be conducted by people with some knowledge of the mining industry, who will command the confidence of the general public and who will be able to arrive at a just decision.


Mr. R. J. Taylor

It seems that we may be on the eve of the introduction of legislation to deal with this problem of serious accidents in mines, and it is scarcely necessary to remind the House or the country that we are dealing, in this connection, not only with the lives of the men themselves but with the lives of widows and dependants. I do not think it is ever fully realised, except when a serious disaster occurs, how cheaply our coal is obtained, and the comfort which the miners bestow upon the people of the country at such risk to themselves. But it is not only the great disasters—it is the smaller disasters, causing some 800 people to be killed every year, which represent the price paid by the miners in supplying the coal of the country. Reference has been made to-night by one hon. Member who has had a vivid experience of explosions. I have only been in one explosion in a mine, and it was a terrible experience. It was not a large explosion. Fortunately, there was no death, and only one man was injured, severely burned, but the feeling of helplessness, that you are overpowered, first as though water was rushing upon you and next as though you were undoubtedly going to be buried, was terrible.

I have been reading with great interest the report that the Secretary for Mines has enabled us to have by sending an inspector over to Paris. The number of accidents from explosions is remarkably lower in France than here. Why is that? A very important thing to me, in reading that report, was to find that the output per man-shift is as high there as it is here. I found that on account of the nature of the seams and the inclination, they were getting their coal largely with mechanical picks driven by compressed air, and I then said to myself, "I wonder why this has come to pass in France." I remembered some years ago a terrible disaster, the worst there has ever been in the mining industry, when just over 1,000 men and boys lost their lives in an explosion in a mine in France, and I asked myself—I have not the answer—" Is this the reason that they have taken such grave and strong precautions in the winning of their coal in France? Is the work done by compressed air so that the danger of an explosion from electricity, either in the cutting machine or the fusing of a cable, can be eliminated, because in the memory of the French people there is that great disaster which determined them never again to risk such a disaster? "

The plea that we are making to-night is that the miner is of such importance in our opinion, and ought to be in the opinion of the rest of the people of this country, that if we cannot control electricity to prevent these disasters, then electricity ought to be out of the mine. Let me give another analogy, because the question of cost is always a formidable-obstacle to get over. The Government will realise that without my stressing the point. We had a great disaster in Northumberland some 70 years ago, when about 200 men and boys were suffocated in a mine because there was only one shaft. Up to that time the coalowners of this country could not afford to have a second shaft, a second way out, because it would add so much to the cost of the working of the mine. There had been many agitations from miners and progressive minded people for a second way out, but when that beam of that pumping machine broke and fell into the shaft, and those men were suffocated, the indignation of this country was aroused to such an extent that this House had to make compulsory a second way out.

We are going through a new stage in mining. Thank God we have had none of these serious explosions in Northumberland, but that does not prevent us having a fellow-feeling for those who are working in other coalfields who have these dangers to endure. How many more-disasters are we to have before we deal effectually with electricity in the mines?' I have here the report of an inquiry into' an explosion. It is to be hoped that in the course of time such a fundamental investigation may lead to improvements in cutting practice which will, as a first line of defence, minimise the risk of ignition. Where the conditions at the face permit, there is no reason why some means of dealing with incipient fires should not be carried actually by coal cutting machines in the form either of the supply of stone dust or a fire extinguisher. If conditions at the face do not permit, there should not be a machine there. I will not say anything detrimental about inspectors. I have the greatest respect for them, but I think that by taking the attitude that a pit should be according to the way they think it should be, not according to the way it is being worked or has been worked for some time past, they would bring the pit into a better state. That might go a long way to prevent such disasters as these. No one but miners can have any idea of the speed at which our men are working and the terrific strain that is thrown upon them to get an output. In the old days a man could practically finish his days in the mine after he had served his company for some 40 or 50 years and he might be given an easy job. There are some colliery companies which used even to give their own ponies a rest until they died. Now the older men are paid off and we have at the face men at the prime of life, full of energy.

We are increasing the pressure also with the coal-cutter. We are doing something else. We are making the length of the face such a distance that everything has to go like clockwork so that men shall get the work done in a prescribed time. If anything goes wrong there is chaos and the whole cycle of operations is thrown out. I was talking to a man who knows something about coal-cutting machines in regard to the number of cables that are burnt. He said, "Do you know how these cables are burnt? It is because a man has a greater amount of face to do in a limited time, and on goes the juice with a bang." That is the cause of an explosion, and it could be obviated if there were not so much speed and if the faces were shortened. We are pleading to-night for the lives of men. Here is the compensation report for 1936, and it is an abominable shame that the percentage of men being injured in the mines to-day is higher than ever and that after a few weeks of compensation, unless they have been members of co-operative societies and have a little bit saved up, they have to go on public assistance. The insurance companies are doing well out of it. Of the £12,500,000, £8,000,000 goec in compensation and other charges, and the other £4,500,000 goes to the people who are raking in the shekels for merely keeping the books and gathering the premiums. If something is not done, we, as mining Members, are going to shake things up. It is no use our talking. There must be some action, and we hold the Government responsible for bringing in legislation to save the lives of our men and to give them adequate compensation when the unavoidable accident takes place.

10.58 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Captain Margesson)

We have listened this evening to some very moving and heart-rending speeches, and I can assure hon. Gentlemen opposite that the Government make no complaint whatever that the opportunity which presented itself this evening was taken to raise this most important subject. Reference has been made to the fact that the benches in all quarters of the House have been sparsely attended. I think the answer to that must be that hon. Gentlemen did not know that this important subject was going to be raised on the Adjournment. A number of Members went home when the Debate on the foreign subject was raised, and I would not like it to go out that the House was sparsely attended when a subject of this importance was being debated. I wish I were competent to take my share in the Debate on behalf of the Government, but hon. Gentlemen will recognise that that is obviously impossible. They will recognise with me that only fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.

Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."

Captain Margesson

I will content myself with saying this, that in all quarters of the House we have been deeply impressed by the speeches to which we have listened to-night, speeches of great sincerity, speeches born of wide knowledge, speeches which come from deep and tragic experiences in connection with this subject of accidents in mines and the methods which could be adopted to prevent them. Quite naturally it is a subject which rivets the attention of all Members in all quarters of the House, whether they sit for mining constituencies or whether they do not. It is our unhappy lot in this House to listen to answers to questions which have to announce some tragic disaster in coalmining, and the answers always end with an expression of sympathy with those who have been bereaved. I am sure there is not a Member who, when he hears that phrase at the conclusion of the answer, does not say to himself sincerely, "Cannot something be done to prevent this suffering?" I know that that is the feeling in all quarters of the House, and hon. Members opposite may rest perfectly assured that I shall not only convey the remarks which have been made this evening to the Secretary for Mines and, indeed, to other quarters also, but that I shall see to it that the spirit in which those remarks were made is also conveyed to those quarters.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Sexton

I do not want to detain the House for long and I have not many qualifications for speaking in this Debate, except that I represent a mining area and that my early life was spent in a mining village, and that I have vivid recollections of seeing men and boys brought out of the coal mine dead and maimed, some of them boys with whom I had played and worked, and the effect upon me in those days was such that I welcome the fact that I now have the opportunity, in this august assembly, of saying a word or two on behalf of miners and their wives and families. I have in my hand a copy of the report which has been referred to so often to-night, and I wish to congratulate the author of it. Going carefully through it, I have been somewhat ashamed to find that we are behind France in many respects in the matter of safety in mines. Whether that difference is entirely due to the use of electricity I do not know. I sometimes wonder whether those little children who while playing on the seashore picked up amber, or electron as it has been called, and discovered its electrical properties while playing with it, ever realised that in other days far ahead little children would lose their fathers through the use of electricity in mines.

On page 12 of the report there is a table setting out explosions by causes. I do not want to refer to all the causes, but only to explosions attributed to electricity. Explosions caused in France by electricity numbered one, in the 10 years from 1924 to 1935, inclusive; in Great Britain, in the same period, the number was 17. Deaths in France caused by such explosions were one, and in this country 86. The death-rate per 1,000 persons below ground in France was .0005, through the same cause, electricity; in this country it was .0115, which is 23 times the French rate. The average number of explosions in France, apart from electricity, was 1.1 and the average number of deaths 5.8. In Great Britain the average number of explosions during that 10-year period was 11.7and the average annual deaths 75.3.

Something has been said about visits to Buxton and the terror that was seen there. If it is so terrible and appalling to see explosions where there is no loss of life, what must the terror be in actual experience when it results in loss of life? If we cannot go to Buxton perhaps we can go to the funeral of some of the victims of explosions and see the grief of the widows, the relatives and the little children. That is an experience that I and many of my hon. Friends have had. Can nothing be done to exclude electricity from the mines for the time being, until the report on safety is issued? What if another disaster occurred, caused by electricity, after this appeal? What would the miners say? What would the country say?

Adjourned accordingly at Seven Minutes after Eleven o'clock.