HC Deb 30 June 1954 vol 529 cc1374-86

(1) Every length of road in a mine which is used at the beginning or end of a shift by not less than ten persons for the purpose of walking to or from their working places in the mine, being a length made after the commencement of this Act, shall be not less than five feet six inches high throughout:

Provided that—

  1. (a) provision may be made by regulations for exempting from the foregoing provisions of this subsection any such lengths of road as aforesaid of a prescribed class in mines to which the regulations apply, or any prescribed parts of any such lengths of road in such mines or of any such lengths of road of a prescribed class in such mines; and
  2. (b) an inspector may, by notice served on the manager of a mine, exempt from those provisions any such length of road as aforesaid in that mine or any part of any such length of road.

(2) If with respect to a length of road in a mine which is used as mentioned in subsection (1) of this section, being a length made before the commencement of this Act which is not throughout of a height of at least five feet six inches, an inspector is of opinion that it is inexpedient that it should continue to be so used unless it is heightened, he may serve upon the manager of the mine a notice specifying that length of road and the height (not being more than five feet six inches) to which, in his opinion, it ought to be increased if it is to continue to be so used, and directing that, after the expiration of such period beginning with the day on which the notice becomes operative as may be specified therein, every part of that length of road which is so used shall be throughout (except at such places, if any, therein as may be specified in the notice) of a height not less than that so specified.

(3) If, with respect to a length of road in a mine (whether made in whole or in part either before or after the commencement of this Act) being a length which is used as mentioned in subsection (1) of this section, an inspector is of opinion that it is inexpedient that it should continue to be so used unless it is widened, he may serve upon the manager of a mine a notice specifying that length of road and the width to which, in his opinion, it ought to be increased if it is to continue to be so used, and directing that, after the expiration of such period beginning with the day on which the notice becomes operative as may be specified therein, every part of that length of road which is so used shall be throughout (except at such places, if any, therein as may be specified in the notice) of a width not less than that so specified.

(4) The provisions of Part XV of this Act with respect to references upon notices served by inspectors shall apply to a notice served under either of the two last foregoing sub-sections.—[Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

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

The Committee will probably prefer me to state this quite simply. We had a great deal of discussion as to what the actual figure should be. We started off some distance apart and eventually came to an agreement which was somewhere about halfway.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

I am sorry that I must disagree completely about the height mentioned in this new Clause. It is quite true that the Minister has come some distance towards meeting us, but I think that he should be reminded, with respect, that he has only come that distance as a result of a push from behind. If we had not in Committee attempted to substitute 6 ft. for 5 ft. we should not have got what is now in the new Clause.

Because of my experience of low roadways I am an ardent advocate of road ways 6 ft. high. The height in years gone by was 3 ft. We had to fight every inch of the way to get it to 4 ft. and now we have tried to get what we consider to be the reasonable height of 6 ft. minimum. While I am well aware that this new Clause, which lays down that the roadways shall be 5 ft. 6 ins., will pass the Report stage and be incorporated in the Bill I prophesy that within the next few years the Minister of Fuel and Power, either by regulation or by amending legislation, will have to substitute the figure six. As an old collier will tell the Committee why.

In many British coalfields we are now winning for the nation coal from seams as low as 22 ins., 24 ins. and 36 ins. Unless regulations or legislation make it compulsory to heighten the roadways, and particularly the travelling roadways, those low seams will mean low travelling roads.

Another reason we should insist on a height of 6 ft. is ventilation. Ventilation is of paramount importance to the man at the coal face and to the men working in the pit. We are now taking what in my pit language we call "greater takes." We are travelling longer distances inbye. We therefore have to see that the roadways not only make it possible for men to travel in comfort but that the roadways themselves take the volume of air necessary to render obnoxious gases less dangerous.

4.30 p.m.

Another factor is that men who are injured at the coalface have to be carried along those roadways to the pit bottom. If the height of the roadway is only 5 ft. 6 ins, it will be extremely difficult for the stretcher bearers to carry those men along the roadway. It is all very well for the non-mining man to say that 5 ft. 6 ins. is high enough. It is all very well for people who do not live in mining areas to say that 5 ft. 6 ins. is sufficiently high for a roadway. But be it remembered that in many of our seams today, particularly in north-east and north-west Lancashire, the gradients are one in three, one in five and one in seven. I know that the Minister, in his heart of hearts, appreciates what it means to carry a stretcher bearing a man weighing 10, 11 or 12 stone along a low roadway to the pit bottom; I know he appreciates the difficulty which these men experience when travelling along gradients of that kind.

True, there has been some common agreement behind the scenes, and I do not wish to be disloyal, but I do wish to speak according to my convictions. Speaking from my experience, it is a mistake to fix the height of a roadway at 5 ft. 6 ins. from the point of view of the comfort of the men and of getting an injured workman to the pit bottom and then to the surface as quickly as possible. While it may be true that the height mentioned in this new Clause has been agreed—and, as I say, I have no desire to be disloyal—I wish to express my personal opinion that the time has come in mining today when our roadways should be sufficiently high and wide not only to enable coal and men to be conveyed but to provide adequate ventilation to the coalface.

I should like to refer to a report which appeared in a newspaper a fortnight ago. Be it remembered that we are dealing with modern mining. Here is a report of an injured workman on the North-East Coast. He was trapped with a colleague by a 2 cwt. 5 ft. long piece of rock. He was extricated suffering from severe spinal injuries, and the roadway was so low that he had to be strapped to a shovel and dragged one mile from the place of the accident to the pit bottom. This is 1954, and we should have travelled a long way from those conditions.

There are several reasons why I say that 5 ft. 6 ins. is too low. First of all, there is the comfort of the men to be considered. These men are now working in 22-in. seams, and when a man has been cramped up under a roof 22 ins. high for 7½ hours, he does not want to experience further physical discomfort created by a low roadway. Secondly, it is of paramount importance to have sufficiently high roadways for ventilation purposes. I am convinced that a height of 5 ft. 6 ins. is inadequate for the comfort of men engaged in modern mining.

Mr. David Grenfell (Gower)

The Minister should reconsider the position of roadways in general. My hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) has had almost as much experience underground as I have—perhaps he has had more—but I have seen conditions underground change enormously since I started working in the mines 60 years ago. Even as far back as 1887 there was a special provision to safeguard the minimum height of roadways, not entirely in the interests of the men, although it was certainly of benefit to the men. This provision was introduced in the interests of the horse. The law provided for a sufficient height in roadways along which horses travelled to enable the horses to pass without the possibility of the harness or the horse touching the roof. Horses of 14 or 14½ hands—with the collar which was worn underground they would be about 15 hands—required six feet of height to enable them to pass without rubbing.

A manager can be penalised if he allows a horse to rub, but it is possible for a man not only to rub as he passes but to bump his head severely. Many miners are now taller than their predecessors were. I belong to a generation of colliers who very seldom reach the stature of six feet, but colliers today are often six feet high. The main roadway of a pit may be a mile long, and if a height of only 5 ft. 6 ins, is allowed many men will have to stoop all the way. Mechanically, another six inches does not matter much to the industry, but to expect a man to stoop to save six inches of height is really improper in these days.

I expect much from this Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Ince has called attention to the changes taking place in the industry. It is not just a question of the size of the tubs or the height of the men; it is a question of getting sufficient ventilation, and the mines will not be made safe unless the roadways are far more commodious than is proposed in this new Clause. We shall not get good mining unless we have the largest possible airways. Do not let us tie both hands and feet of mining progress by accepting 5 ft. 6 ins. as a sufficient height. I hope the Minister will withdraw this proposal and substitute a height of 6 ft.

Mr. Blyton

I hope it will not be thought that because some of us have accepted this compromise we are less interested in the heights of roads than those who are asking for a height of 6 ft. What actually happened was this. We on these benches defeated the Minister in Committee when the Minister had a height of 5 ft. in the Clause. We argued that it should be 6 ft.—

Mr. Frank Bowles (Nuneaton)

May I point out that I had the most unfortunate experience, while in the Chair, of having to give my vote in favour of the Minister.

Mr. Blyton

I know that the Chairman was in an invidious position. We arrived at a compromise of 5 ft. 6 ins. A height of 5 ft. 6 ins. is a tremendous advance on the provisions of the 1911 Act, and it means that every new travelling road will have to be driven in its initial stages at a height of 6 ft. 6 ins. to 7 ft. because it has got to be 5 ft. 6 ins. high after all the pressure has been put upon the road.

I hope that the Chief Inspector of Mines has noted the distressing details of the accident which occurred in Northumberland, when a man who sustained a spinal injury had to be dragged on a shovel for a mile. That sort of thing will not happen with a 5 ft. 6 in. roadway. One cannot expect to have a 5 ft. 6 in. high road on the long wall face, when the seam is only 2 ft. 9 ins. One can expect that height only in the roads leading up to the seam, and not in the roads where the men are working. If a man is injured when working a 1 ft. 9 in. seam, he may have to be dragged on a shovel for about 50 yards to the mother-gate.

I believe that we ought to accept the Clause as a compromise. We should have liked to get a height of 6 ft., but we have failed. We are now getting a height half way between the Minister's former idea and our own. Old trade unionists know that when they went to the office to argue for a tonnage price, and the price was raised half way to what they wanted, they thought they were getting a good settlement. The Clause represents a considerable advance upon the 1911 Act, and provides for a height of 5 ft. 6 ins. instead of 5 ft., as was originally proposed. In all the circumstances, I think we should accept it.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Aneurin Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

I know that my hon. Friends have spent a great deal of time considering this question in Committee, and that some of them agree to the compromise which is now being put forward, but I hope that if the compromise is agreed to it will not be regarded as indicating what will be carried out in practice. It is correct to say that this provision offers something much better than was provided by the old Act, but I was never able to see very much correspondence between the provisions of a statute and the conditions in a pit. What really matters is what is carried out in the pit. We say that common roadways shall be no less than 5 ft. 6 ins. in height. In most cases we expect them to be more.

Anyone with any experience of walking long distances underground knows very well that to do so in a cramped position is not only exceedingly fatiguing, but exceedingly bad for breathing. Anyone who has seen old men walking up roadways in pits, with their chins dug into their chests, knows that it is the worst possible posture for breathing, especially when the air itself is bad. I hope that the Minister will give us an assurance that the statutory minimum is not an indication of future colliery practice. I would call my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that even with this height of 5 ft. 6 ins. certain roadways can be exempted by the inspector. Inspectors used to exempt miles and miles of roadway from the necessity of being supported under the Coal Mines Act.

One of the difficulties about the Bill, and especially about this Clause, is that it does not pay sufficient attention to the fact that the future administration of the pits will be a domestic concern. These inspectors are creatures of the Minister. The Board itself is almost a creature of the Minister. In those circumstances we expect that the internal administration of the pits will be different from what it has been hitherto. Up to now it has been necessary to introduce a statute, because only in that way could the law be made to apply to a colliery owner who made profits out of cheating the law. We hope that the situation will now be different. It is now very much more a matter of domestic administration. I should run to the Aye Lobby with enthusiasm if I thought that this 5 ft. 6 ins. had reference to future colliery practice, which I hope will be very much better than it has been in the past.

Mr. John McKay (Wallsend)

I am very pleased that this discussion has taken place. We have been given some information that we did not have before. We all know that the question of the height of roadways is a matter of cost, and it is because of that fact that, during the Committee stage, the height for which the miners' representatives were asking was not agreed to. To get the Bill through as quickly as possible the miners' representatives agreed to a compromise, but why should we compromise in considering human beings when we will not do so in the case of animals which have to work down mines?

Mr. David Griffiths (Rother Valley)

On a point of order. I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. McKay) would get this matter in its proper perspective. We did not compromise. If there has been any compromise—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

That is not a point of order.

Mr. Blyton

On a point of order. Is it right that one hon. Member should refer to others as having compromised the situation? We have done nothing of the kind?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That is not a point of order.

Mr. McKay

I am sorry if people are annoyed because I have risen to speak. Other hon. Members can do so as well, and can be listened to quite calmly and serenely. I did not imply that the representatives of the miners agreed to a compromise during the Committee stage. They put their case. I am glad that they ventilated their attitude, because it should be made known that miners are not satisfied with a height of 5 ft. 6 ins.

What I was trying to say is that for years past there has been an attitude in the mining industry that there must be sufficient height for tubs to travel along the roads, and it has always been agreed that the roadways should be sufficiently high for animals employed in the pits. But there has always been a tendency to compromise in the case of the ordinary human being working in the pit and producing the coal. Although he may have one, or even two miles to walk, it has not been considered necessary to provide a roadway of such a height that he can travel without stooping. The Clause still preserves the compromise, but there is a difference of only six inches between the Minister and my hon. Friends. Could not the Minister add on that six inches and so give real satisfaction to the miners?

I was not a member of the Committee which considered the Bill, but I can guarantee that the minds of the officials who are conducting mining operations today are mainly concerned with the question of £ s. d. A height of 6 ft. could be provided as well as a height of 5 ft. 6 ins., but it is a matter of cost, for the greater the height the greater the cost. I am very pleased the matter has been ventilated, to indicate to the country that the miners who travel for miles in the pits along roadways whose roofs are too low cannot be satisfied even with this new provision, the purpose of which is to try to get coal a little cheaper.

Mr. D. Griffiths

I want to put my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. McKay) right, and I do not want to attack the Standing Committee. I was out of order just now in trying to correct my hon. Friend, but now I would tell him frankly that there was no question of compromise here. It was the Minister or one of his colleagues who brought the question of cost into our debates on the Bill. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) I am not happy about the compromise, but it is not the Standing Committee's compromise. I said in Committee, and I say here on the Floor of the House, that I shall not be satisfied until the height is 6 ft. It is perfectly true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend said, that it is a matter of cost, but I do not accept all that my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Blyton) said.

As I and various hon. Members said in Committee, once the roadway is made there will not have to be spent on it one penny in five years' time. That, anyway, will be true of the roadways in a considerable number of the mines. In a large number, where there is a rock top and a rock floor, once the roadway is made it will remain for a considerable period. What is more, on such roadways, free from bottlenecks and falls, there is a compensation gained in output that is quite marvellous.

I beg the Minister yet again to give us the extra 6 ins. I do not want to go into the question of the 22-in. seams. I have been down to one; indeed it was a little more than that; but for a great number of years it was my privilege to work at fairly thick seams. We have, fortunately, in South Yorkshire some very thick seams, but we have structural movement there. I can appreciate the concern of the right hon. Gentleman and his advisers and of the Coal Board with cost. Side movement and movement of floor and roof is much quicker in thick than in thin seams, and if the movement were the same all over the coalfields we should indeed have a problem.

It is a difficulty the Coal Board has to bear. However, we cannot disregard it. Although we are Members of Parliament, as ex-miners we are still part and parcel of the industry, and we are not less so because we are in Opposition. We have to take into consideration the question of cost because inevitably the cost falls on the consumers. We are concerned not only with the wellbeing of the miners but with other industries and with the consumers, industrial and domestic. If it is not too late to do so, I appeal once more to the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider this matter before Third Reading.

Mr. A. Roberts

This is a subject on which emotions are easily aroused. The arguments that have been put forward now were also put forward in Committee. We have to be practical, and I would remind my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), who was talking about ventilation, that another 6 ins. of height will not be a very decided advantage in ventilation. The people who have travelled the roads of our pits know that to get a minimum height of 5ft. 6 ins. is a great advance. That remains the case although we have heard the arguments in favour of 6 ft. The dimensions of roadways was not mentioned in the 1911 Act except in respect to connecting roads between two shafts. I do not want to prolong the discussion on the new Clause because I want to get the Bill.

Mr. T. Brown

So do I.

Mr. Roberts

I would remind my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) that in the coalfields, including those in Scotland, where the mine roadways have roofs 3 ft. and 4 ft. high a gigantic task faces the Coal Board. If there is a prescribed minimum of 5 ft. 6ins. any colliery manager of any sense will construct with a height of 7 ft., for he has to allow for supports. I do not want to repeat what has been said in Committee. I am pleased that we are to have a minimum standard prescribed in the Bill, whereas, hitherto, there has not been one. That is our strongest point, and I leave it at that. We want 6 ft., but I am proud to think that we have gained some ground by getting this concession from the Minister.

Mr. Joseph Slater (Sedgefield)

I shall not take up much of the time of the House, because I was a Member of the Committee and we considered this matter; and I am quite well aware what this means to the men in the industry. We who have had experience of the industry know that, in the past, miners were subjected to intolerable conditions. Often we arrived at a shaft bottom entirely exhausted. The writing into the Bill of this prescribed minimum will be a great advantage.

There is one question I have to ask. We are talking about 5 ft. 6 ins. or even 6 ft. as being the height of the roof, but we have to remember that the roof has to be covered, and that takes away a certain amount of the height. Does the prescribed minimum height refer to the roof itself or to the distance between the floor and the crossbars and so on supporting the roof? Timbering of the roof is bound to take away from that distance.

5.0 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

It is 5 ft. 6 ins. true clearance under the bars. I have been very well treated by hon. Members, and, therefore, I want to make quite clear my responsibility and that of the Government. It is the Government who must take responsibility for bringing forward these proposals. When we brought forward the original proposal we felt that we were making a considerable advance on what existed in the 1911 Act. It may not have been as far as hon. Members would have liked us to go, and hon. Members pressed us to go further, as, indeed, was their duty. The hon. Member whom I once called the hon. Member for Blyton—the hon. Member for for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Blyton)—pressed the matter very strongly as a good trade unionist because, he said, the demand had to be high. I am in a different position, for I must be a responsible Member of a Government and I cannot move with quite the same freedom as that with which the demands are made. We started with a certain proposition which was an improvement on the 1911 Act. After hearing representations I was able to go further, but I cannot today go further than the figure given in the Clause.

Mr. Thomas Fraser (Hamilton)

Would the Minister make this point clear? He has said that he cannot go further than 5 ft. 6 ins. I happen to represent a part of the Lanarkshire coalfield where the seams are very thin—probably the thinnest seams worked in Great Britain. We have the lowest roadways. Some of the collieries which have been closed in Lanarkshire would not have been closed had the roadways been made at an adequate height in the first place. The great difficulty in the coalfield at present is that we are not getting the full advantage of mechanisation at the face because of the bottlenecks in transport.

I should be endangering the continued existence of the few remaining collieries in my part of Lanarkshire if I insisted that every roadway in those collieries had to be made at least 5 ft. 6 ins. forthwith. Nevertheless, I appreciate that even in that part of the coalfield many of the roads are already in excess of 5 ft. 6 ins., and I rose because the Minister failed to say that it was his intention and desire that in future the Coal Board should endeavour to have all the main roadways considerably in excess of 5 ft. 6 ins.

In the Clause we are dealing only with roadways made after the commencement of the Act. It is important to have that in mind. My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. A. Roberts) said that if the figure were 6 ft. the Coal Board would have art enormous undertaking in front of it in some parts of the coalfield, particularly in Scotland, with the old roadways, but we are not asking them to remake existing roadways, for the Clause applies only to roadways to be constructed in the future.

I ask the Minister to make it quite clear that although he has written 5 ft. 6 ins. into the Bill, that must not be taken as an instruction to the National Coal Board that 5 ft. 6 ins. is an adequate height for a main roadway in a colliery. I hope that he will not even regard 6 ft. as sufficient for main roadways, but will at least consider a height of 7 ft.

Mr. Lloyd

I thank the hon. Member for making that point, because I rose previously with the intention of making it and forgot to do so. Of course, this is a statutory minimum and a large number of roads will be much in excess of it.

Mr. Noel-Baker

New main roads which are being made by the Coal Board are often very much higher than that.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.