HC Deb 27 July 1943 vol 391 cc1531-42

  1. (1) The Commission may, where in their opinion such action is necessary in order to prevent subsidence or the accumulation on the surface of any refuse from a coal mine, require the owner of any coal-mining undertaking to take whatever steps, in the opinion of the Commission, are reasonable and practicable to pack and stow places from which coal is extracted by the undertaking.
  2. (2) Any owner of a coal-mining undertaking who makes default in complying with any requirement made under this Section shall be guilty of an offence and shall he liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding 5o pounds or, in the case of a person convicted of a second or subsequent offence under this Section, to a fine not exceeding 50o pounds or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to both such imprisonment and fine.—[Mr. D. Adams.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. David Adams

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The purpose of the new Clause is the prevention of subsidence or the accumulation of refuse upon the surface. It seems to me that this is an overdue statutory reform. One might have expected that during the last 50 years it would have been a statutory obligation upon all companies working coal to prevent the great evils arising from subsidence which have been so admirably illustrated by Members and the Minister to-day. Colliery subsidences are an unquestioned menace to social and family life and to the best interests of communities which are compelled to be residents in mining areas. We think the hour has now struck when industrial concerns should be expected to fulfil their obligations to the community and end a serious abuse. The Clause set out steps which, in our judgment, ought to be taken in order to prevent these twin evils. It asks that refuse from the working of coal should be packed and stowed in places from which it has been extracted. This is a very innocuous and extraordinarily mild Clause. I read it twice and thrice in order to make certain that it was innocuous. It states that the action taken shall be at the discretion of the Coal Commission. If the Coal Commission think that they could not call on coalowners to take reasonable and practical steps, the Commission will take no action, but if the Commission think that such steps are necessary, in the private and public interest, these steps ought to be taken. There is abundant evidence that stowing and packing are very successful where properly carried out, and if these processes were general, it would be a very great reform.

In evidence given before the Royal Commission on Mining Subsidence in 1923 representatives of Yorkshire stated that the mechanical packing and stowing of underground refuse was in general operation and as a result there was practically no subsidence in their areas. We know that in many coalfields on the Continent, where the power of the State is so much greater, the refuse is brought to the surface, and there subjected to hydraulic pressure and formed into concrete-like slabs, and that these are then taken underground and carefully and scientifically stowed in the places from which the coal has been taken, with the result that the area is unaware that coal mining is in existence. If we could adopt this system of stowing underground and overground refuse—and the Yorkshire collieries were able to obtain stone and other material for the purpose from the screens and from round about the mines—it would have quite a number of important results. There would be increased safety for the coal workers through the prevention of falls and accumulations of gas; there would be improved ventilation and a lessening of the fear of explosion; and, in addition to that, if stowage were statutorily enforced all pillars and barriers now left could be worked.

Throughout the coalfields there is a vast amount of valuable coal which has been left underground, because stowage has not been attempted, to prevent subsidences. The evidence submitted to the Royal Commission was that when pillars are left much greater damage is done to the surface by reason of the uneven situation which occurs underground, and that if these pillars were worked and if there were subsidences—as there might be—there would be a more even fall, thereby lessening damage to property of all kinds. In addition, the colliery owners would have the benefit of these unworked pillars and barriers of coal. We ought to recognise to-day that coal is national wealth, too valuable to be left underground unused. If it were worked it would provide additional employment, and in a certain area with which I am acquainted I am advised that the barriers, which are numerous and large, would give an additional lease of life to the area. That observation would apply, I presume, to many of our coalfields and our colliery towns. On those grounds alone we contend that i1 is essential that the Commission should be endowed with this authority by statute. The time has come when mechanical or other forms of stowage must be made effective throughout the coalfields, in order to eliminate the great loss and waste of national wealth caused by leaving coal underground.

I come next to the other part of the Clause, which says we should prevent any accumulation of refuse upon the surface. No person who enters County Durham for the first time can be other than struck with the very unpicturesque heaps, standing out like mighty pyramids, of enormous height, and containing many hundreds of thousands of tons of refuse; but one effect of these heaps, I am informed, is that their great weight is producing subsidence in non-raining areas contiguous to them, causing damage to non-colliery property, buildings and works. Another effect of these heaps which we say ought to be avoided is that the landscape is disfigured. There is no reason why that delightful county of hills and dales, Durham—and Northumberland, two illustrious industrial counties—should be other than beautiful. The charm of many large areas has departed, and that will be the condition of affairs until, in a wiser day, these heaps are removed.

Further, dust comes from the heaps, and many of them take fire, producing deadly tomes which are injurious to man and beast. The fumes damage the paint work of homes, the furniture, pictures, etc., and in certain of our areas which I know well the windows are perennially kept shut, night and day, on account of the fumes. The fresh air which ought to be the prerogative of family life is denied to these unfortunate residents. I need not mention the effect of the fumes upon our colliery gardens and upon the foodstuffs which the workers in the collieries are growing in their spare time.

This Clause is, in my judgment and that of my colleagues, essentially necessary and singularly reasonable. It is of local and national importance and should unquestionably find a place in this Bill. If it is rejected the colliery workers and those associated with them in the area from which I come—and their attention has been directed to this hard hand of fate for many years, and they feel they have a deep and abiding grievance—will conclude that industry rather than the broader interests of the industrial workers and others concerned must have been regarded as having the first, second and third call upon the State and upon the Government of the day. This is a proposal which will add to the national wealth by introducing a general system of packing and storing underground, and will eliminate one of the great evils of industrial mining areas. I trust that the Minister will see his way to accepting this very moderate Clause.

Mr. Tinker

I beg to support the Motion. The mover of this Clause has shown a depth of knowledge which, in a non-miner, one would hardly expect. My hon. Friend covered the whole ground very well, and I wondered how anybody without a practical knowledge of mining could display the knowledge that he has done. To-day we have been discussing damage to property and attempting to prevent it happening. My hon. Friend is asking in this Clause that there should be in the hands of the Commissioners power to tell a colliery owner that he must stow the mine workings. It is as well for this Committee to know what that expression means. Many times during colliery Debates I have wondered whether hon. Members were fully alive to the meanings of the various expressions which were used in connection with the working of coal.

What is meant by stowing is common knowledge, and this is its meaning From the bowels of the earth are extracted certain thicknesses of seam of coal, perhaps 4 ft. or 7 ft. thick. After a lapse of years the roof of the workings falls gradually, and there is a subsidence on the surface to the same extent as the depth of the seam of coal that has been taken out. When you have seams varying from 6 ft. to 20 ft. thick, the surface gradually drops to that extent ultimately, and therefore you have a depression on the land above. All property on that land gradually collapses or shows signs of deterioration. If there is no property on the surface, water accumulates in the depression. That is the first matter that we want to deal with. We want to say that coal, which is national wealth and has undoubtedly to be extracted, should be got out in such a way as to prevent the desolation of the land upon the surface. Is there any practical means of ensuring that? We say that there is.

We want to put into the hands of the Commission power to go to a colliery owner and to say, "We have seen so much damage being done that we have been given the power to tell you that this must not take place." How can it be done? In the extraction of coal a certain amount of waste is caused, such as in the making of roadways, and a certain section has to be taken out of the mine. It is not coal but is what we call dirt or rough. It is usually sent to the surface. We are asking that the rough should be stowed in the place from which the coal has been extracted. There is another thing. In the coal that has been sent up there is a certain amount of dirt, and the result is the huge accumulations of dirt on the surface. If the Deputy-Chairman will let me—I do not know whether he has ever been in Lancashire—I shall be pleased to take him round my native place, St. Helens, and point out these heaps to him.

The Deputy-Chairman (Mr. Charles Williams)

The remarks of the hon. Member are certainly outside the scope of the Debate, however tempting his invitation may be.

Mr. Tinker

What I want to impress upon your mind is what it must mean to us who live among these things. Coming along this morning, we saw these vast heaps, and I wondered whether I should have an opportunity to tell this Committee exactly the impression on our minds. We asked ourselves whether it was right that anybody should have the power to leave those vast mounds of waste to be an eyesore to everybody. In the proposed new Clause we are appealing to the Minister to use his best efforts to secure that in future in the working of the coal the kind of thing that has happened in the past shall not happen again, and to say, "I intend to prevent this accumulation of waste. I intend to do what I can to keep the surface in something like its proper form and deal with this question of subsidence and in addition prevent these big mounds growing up." That is what the Clause means. It may be that we shall not be able to get it carried to-day, but it will bring from the Minister some explanation as to what the Government intend for the future. If only we can get the point established that something must be done now or in the immediate future, I shall be well satisfied that our work has not been in vain. It is in that spirit that we are asking the Committee to examine it and see what can be done.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

On 24th June the hon. Members for Leigh (Mr. Tinker), Consett (Mr. D. Adams), East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) and myself endeavoured to focus the attention of Members and in particular the attention of the Minister of Town and Country Planning by requesting him to have regard in the post-war reconstruction policy to the question of beautifying the industrial districts by the planting of trees. That Debate, short though it was, caused a great deal of comment, very pleasing comment too. Now to-day we are making an endeavour to get preventive measures by asking the Committee to give powers to the Coal Commission for packing and stowing underground in the coalmines of this country. If I did nothing more than repeat the arguments of the previous speakers on Clause 10, I think there would be found in those arguments sufficient evidence for the adding of this particular Clause to the Bill. It is very interesting to me as a mineworker or as an ex-miner of over 35 years' experience to speak upon the subject of packing and stowing and the advisability of carrying out a policy of the character which is indicated in the new Clause we are now discussing. As I said previously, I have been interested in this matter for a period of 25 to 30 years, but I have no desire to detain the Committee more than five or ten minutes.

I do want us in our consideration of this new Clause to take a retrospective glance into the past when matters of this character have been before the House. According to the records of this House, a Bill relating to compensation for subsidence was presented to the House on 23rd April, 1919, which is 24 years ago. It managed to get a Second Reading, but the Government of that time requested the withdrawal of the Bill and, realising the importance of this subject, said they would refer the matter of damage arising from mining subsidence and the relevant factors to a Royal Commission. This was done, and on 15th June, 1923, the Royal Commission was appointed. They first considered, because of its outstanding importance, the question of damage arising from mining subsidence in the Doncaster area of Yorkshire. The second and final Report of that Commission was presented on 23rd July, 1927. It is interesting to read some of the evidence given to that Commission by many local authorities which exist in the coalfields of this country. It is also interesting to see what the members of the Royal Commission had to say on the methods of mitigating mining subsidence. After due consideration, and after all the evidence had been submitted, here is what they recommended: It becomes important, therefore, to ascertain how far the consequences of subsidence can be neutralised or modified. If effective steps can be taken, it may well be that the expense, not being, of course, prohibitive, ought to be incurred where it has to be borne by the mining worker or the surface owner. They made three suggestions, one of which has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Consett. They urged hydraulic stowage and more scientific methods of mining, scientific methods underground and on the surface, and all precautions possible in the construction of surface buildings. Surely, we cannot continue to ignore the express judgment of an important body appointed by the Government. I speak with some authority of the district which I have the honour to represent. It may be that my information and my experience can be multiplied by every mining town and village in this country. There are in the constituency which I represent 20 different mines from the surface to a depth of 820 yards. They vary in thickness from 1 foot it inches to 7 feet, and they vary in depth from the surface from 51 yards to 820 yards. The thickness of those mines is over 70 feet—that is to say, if you were to put them one on top of the other, without the strata between you would get 70 feet of clear coal. If a colliery company is employing to win coal three, four or five mines at one time, as is often the case, tremendous damage is likely to result unless the cavity created is systematically stowed or packed. Hon. Members will see the importance of the Clause we are now discussing.

Let me give some very interesting data. Seventy-five per cent. of the township in which I live was at one time subject to mining subsidence and the damage consequently done by the extraction of coal. The Southern portion, known as Platt Bridge, has subsided 16 feet since 1868. A point in Liverpool Road which is opposite the Employment Exchange has subsided 27 feet since 1868. The main road between Wigan and Manchester has subsided 8 feet and between Leigh and Wigan 9 feet. That is very serious. Think of the colossal waste that is taking place due to mining subsidence. Not only does it upset the main roadways, but it causes untold anxiety to public utility undertakings, such as gas, water, electricity and sewage. In 1909 the banks of the brook which runs through our little township had to be raised, and the lotal authority had to resewer the district at a cost of £15,000. I am speaking of this, because I happened to be the chairman of the authority which had this awful mess to face. The sewage disposal works at Platt Bridge were rendered ineffective owing to subsidence, and they are now being reconstructed at a cost to the local authority of £23,000. The brook into which the effluent discharges has been lowered at a cost of £5,800. The main sewer from the township to the disposal works has been re-laid several times, costing over £10,000. Certain lengths of that sewer were originally laid between 10 to 12 feet underground, and are now 6 feet above the surface.

The Deputy-Chairman

I do not want to stop the hon. Member, but if we are to have a description of so many of the mining villages, it will make a very wide Debate on a really narrow point.

Mr. Brown

I am sorry, but I would like to say that that is not the complete picture. As I mentioned on 24th June, we have, owing to mining subsidence, 150 acres covered with pit shale and metal which, in my judgment, as a practical miner, ought never to have seen the light of day and ought to have been packed underground and stowed in the cavity created by the extraction of coal. We have over 80 acres of land under water because of mining subsidence. One could go on for some time relating the colossal damage, the waste, anxiety and feeling of insecurity created by subsidence which ought to be avoided if proper methods were adopted. I know that there are arguments which will be advanced by the big firms that they cannot undertake systematic packing or stowing. I have in my village—and I must refer to this—a pit which has been in commission up to recently for 75 years, and the proud boast of the manager of that pit was that he had never had a man carried out on a stretcher. That is because he believed in packing all the foreign debris underground. The foreign material was only one day on the surface when it was sent back underground.

There is another very important point which leads to the strengthening of our case. During the last 20 or 25 years there has been a complete change in the method of mining work. The old pillar and stall days are gone. The long wall system has now been put into operation, which aggravates the position from the point of view of mining subsidence. We have coal faces 200 to 300 yards long, and jibs as deep as 4 ft. 6 in. to 5 ft. where for six days every week, 30 ft. of coal 200 yds. long is being extracted. This leaves behind cavities which should be packed with the débris from the road wastes. I have always thought it was important to see that the cavity created by the extraction of the mineral, in this case coal, was stowed or packed in order to give protection and get proper roof control. I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will agree because he has practical experience in the pits. Further, besides improving roof control it will improve ventilation, which is of paramount importance to the mine-worker, especially in some of our deep mines. People in mining districts have, to a large extent, accepted the desolation seen all around them for years as part of the price they have to pay for industrial prosperity. But now—and I welcome it—they have a loftier conception of what life should be, and I hope the Ministry and the Commission will be empowered to compel those who extract coal to fill in the cavities, so that subsidences shall be minimised if not completely eliminated.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Tom Smith)

If I cannot accept this Clause as worded it is not because I do not appreciate the spirit in which it has been moved and discussed. The problem of mining subsidence, how to prevent it and compensation in cases of damage is one of many years' standing. My hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. David Adams) and other Members dealt with the subject in a very interesting way. The Clause suggests that the Commission shall have power, if they think it reasonable and practicable, to do certain things. With regard to new leases, the Commission would have the right to lay down anything which they considered necessary. A lease would be subject to agreement between those who are to work the coal and the Commission. But with regard to existing mines I do not think that a problem of this magnitude could be handled by the Commission giving instructions, with a penalty proviso behind them, to some of our existing mines, especially in the fourth year of the war. I was brought up near a pit; in fact I have some of the "nicest" looking slag heaps one could ever wish to see in my constituency and I would like to see them removed.

This problem of the prevention of subsidence is not however quite as simple as it can be made out to be in speeches here. While the Royal Commission on Mining Subsidence dealt with hydraulic stowing and compulsory stowing and the scientific laying out of the surface and underground, evidence was submitted that there were technical difficulties with regard to it. There is also the question of cost. One of His Majesty's inspectors, who has had considerable experience in investigations into subsidence in other countries, gave evidence that in his opinion the cost at that time—20 years ago—would be somewhere about is. a ton on the cost of production. Costs have gone up since those days. I know one firm which is experimenting with hydraulic stowing and I hope during the Recess to go down the pit and see the hydraulic stower at work. There are a good many technical difficulties in this respect. I worked in a pit where, for more than two years, we never had a fall. There are other pits which have not sufficient dirt to put back into the soil to the extent suggested in speeches that we have heard to-day. A good many pit heaps, which I hope to see dealt with differently before long, are composed of what has actually come out after the coal has been screened. It is not a problem which we could easily hand over to the Commission and expect to get satisfaction.

Mr. T. Brown

I think my hon. Friend will agree that debris could be sent down from the surface where the layout warrants it.

Mr. Smith

In the fourth year of the war I do not think you could start compulsory stowing. This problem of subsidence, both from the angle of compensation and from that of prevention, is one which anyone charged with planning the future must take into account. It brings in two or three Government Departments—the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Works and Planning, and the Ministery of Fuel and Power, as well as the right hon. Gentleman who is in charge of reconstruction, and the Commission. While giving no specific pledge as to how the thing would be dealt with, the problem will have to he discussed as time goes on. The wording of the Clause is such that we could not very well accept it and, in asking my hon. Friends not to press the matter, they may take it that the problem, and problems associated with it, will not be lost sight of but will be considered from time to time.

Mr. Adams

The Minister has pointed out of the difficulties of carrying out forthwith the proposals in the new Clause. We are not asking for that. We are merely asking that the Commission should be authorised to use its judgment as to whether stowing or packing should take place. If the Minister is turning it down and merely stating that at some future date consideration will be given to the matter, we scarcely think that is a very pleasant and felicitous way of dealing with an important public question. Cannot the Minister say something more specific?

Mr. Smith

This problem is bound to be considered; there is no doubt about that; but so are many more mining problems. My hon. Friend knows that there was a Royal Commission on safety in mines which made many recommendations with regard to roof control underground, airways, ventilation and a number of other things. I suggest that the question of compulsory stowing, which would cut across mining practice, is one that needs consideration and that it will be better dealt with when we deal with these questions generally in a Mining Bill. They cannot be dealt with in a small Bill of this character, which is merely intended to tidy up a few mistakes of the 1938 Act. My hon. Friend can take it that we are not unmindful of this problem. We have been talking about it and we shall continue to give it consideration. I do not think one can be expected to be more specific on this Bill. Consultations will have to take place in the industry on both sides, and that is one of the reasons why we cannot accept a new Clause like this on a Bill of this character.

Mr. Tom Brown

Will the Minister agree that, in the circumstances of the future, the Minister of Fuel and Power and the Coal Commission will be forced into the position of having to take notice of this question?

Mr. Smith

I cannot reply to that. One can see a little ahead and one can see that other problems besides this will have to be dealt with.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.