HC Deb 24 October 1966 vol 734 cc643-9
Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr Tydfil)

May I ask the Secretary of State for Wales whether he will make a statement on the disaster at Aberfan, in Methyr Tydfil?

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes)

All Members will have already shared in the nation's grief over the disaster that overtook the small community of Aberfan on Friday morning, when a coal tip avalanched into a farmhouse, 20 houses and two schools.

Despite the efforts of the rescuers, few lives could be saved. The bodies of 111 children and 32 adults have been recovered. It is difficult to give precise figures of the persons who are still missing, but about 49 are unaccounted for.

Alongside the rescue efforts, other work has been going on to stabilise the tip and to prevent further slippages. The Chairman of the National Coal Board, Lord Robens, who has been personally directing this work, has reported to me that the tip can now be regarded as generally stable. While there may be local adjustments of portions of the tip itself and of its widespread extensions lower down, these should not give cause for concern. In the unlikely event of a major movement, the alarm system that has been installed should give adequate warning.

As regards other tips of the National Coal Board that might constitute a hazard, the Board has intensified its inspection precedures and in certain cases has put special precautionary measures in hand. Local authorities have been asked to inspect pit heaps not owned or operated by the Coal Board, to identify which of these might constitute a hazard.

It is possible that the present legal responsibilities and powers of the appropriate authorities in relation to the safety of pit heaps need to be extended and this will be one of the important questions that will be considered by Lord Justice Edmund Davies.

I have discussed his inquiry with Lord Justice Edmund Davies today. He is travelling to South Wales this afternoon and will spend tomorrow at Aberfan. I shall be having a further meeting with him on Wednesday. As the Prime Minister has already made clear, he will have wide terms of reference to cover all aspects of the disaster, and he will be given all the powers that he considers necessary. After discussion with Lord Justice Edmund Davies it has been decided to ask Parliament for the inquiry to be conducted under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921, and the necessary Resolutions will be moved later this week.

Those of us who have had to be at the scene of the disaster will never forget its horror and tragedy; nor shall we forget the selfless and unremitting efforts of the thousands who, since last Friday morning, have been engaged on the appallingly difficult tasks of rescue, recovery and reclamation.

The House will wish to express its own deep sympathy with the bereaved. The House will also wish to record its appreciation of the work of Merthyr County Borough Council, other local authorities and national and local organisations and services and the public.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Davies

Will my right hon. Friend accept from me that the bereaved relatives and all my constituents will be most grateful to him for his assurances and, may I add, for the long days and nights which he personally has spent in the stricken village, and to the Prime Minister for his visit and for his great encouragement to those who are still fighting the battle in Aberfan?

May I express my own sympathy to the bereaved relatives and, on their behalf, great appreciation for the thousands of people who have volunteered their services and their resources to the people in Aberfan who need so much help?

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is so closely identified with the people he represents.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, may I record our deep sympathy with those who have suffered bereavement in this tragic disaster at Aberfan? We wish also to praise those many thousands of helpers who have worked and who are still working on the job of recovery with such gallantry. We support the Secretary of State for Wales in his appointment of Lord Justice Edmund Davies to head the public inquiry and, of course, we will support steps taken by the Government to prevent a repetition of such a tragedy in Wales.

There are certain disturbing features about this tragedy, but, in view of the inquiry, I will put only two questions to the right hon. Gentleman. First, to allay public anxiety, as he quite properly went out of his way to do in his statement, can he say what other tips owned by the National Coal Board at present give cause for concern? Secondly, will the court of inquiry be prepared to issue an interim report if it feels that to be necessary so that any lessons learned may bring immediate benefit?

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The inquiry has full power to do what he suggests in his second question and I will certainly discuss that with Lord Justice Edmund Davies on Wednesday.

The National Coal Board has informed me that there are three tips which it regards as presenting a hazard. These are in the Aberdare area. The first is the Albion Colliery, at Cilfynydd. The colliery is now closed and tipping has ceased. The tip is burning and a continual watch is being maintained. There is no cause for concern.

The second is the Mardy Colliery, where, in exceptionally wet weather, some movement of fine slurry has been noted, although there is no danger to property, the nearest of which is about three-quarters of a mile away and is not in line with any possible slip. Continual observation is being maintained here as well.

The third is Penrhiwceibr, where the old tips have consolidated and have a considerable cover of vegetation and where work has now ceased. Present rubbish disposal is on the other side of the mountain and there are no signs of any danger, although a continual watch is being maintained.

Mr. James Griffiths

May I, on behalf of all of us, express our deep regret at this awful tragedy and our sympathy with the bereaved and our considerable thanks to the very courageous people who have worked so well? We are very proud of the way in which, once more, our people have shown their traditional courage in times of distress.

I wholeheartedly welcome the appointment of Lord Justice Edmund Davies as chairman of the inquiry. He carries with him the confidence of all of us who know him and who know that he will do a thorough job. Will my right hon. Friend provide for him a complete record of all the coal and slag tips in South Wales? Secondly, as the Coal Board is responsible for some but not all of them, can my right hon. Friend say what is the number of tips in Wales and who is responsible for them and whether information of that kind will be put before the inquiry?

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. As he is aware, under the 1921 Act the inquiry will have full power to summon witnesses and call for papers. It is estimated that there are some 500 coal tips in South Wales. Ownership is divided among the Coal Board for all tips on its property, and local authorities and private landowners on whose land disused tips stand. Only 80 tips are at present in use, but the Coal Board has a regular inspection procedure for all tips on its land, whether these tips are in use or not.

However, in the light of events at Aberfan, the Board has intensified its inspection procedures. The Board states that there is no imminent danger from any of its tips, but in the three cases I have mentioned, because of the experience at Aberfan, special measures are being put in hand forthwith. This involves continual inspection, and not inspection once a day, which is a statutory requirement.

Mr. Finch

Can my right hon. Friend say what warning system is involved in those pits in the South Wales coalfield where the tips are regarded as a hazard?

Mr. Hughes

A 24-hour watch is being kept at Aberfan. There are klaxon hooters and the men on watch have walkie-talkie sets, keeping them in constant communication with the base.

Mr. Hooson

On behalf of my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friends I would like to be associated with the expressions of sympathy which have followed this appalling tragedy. It is an appalling tragedy for the Welsh nation apart from anything else.

May I also congratulate the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Wales on his appointment of Lord Justice Edmund Davies to conduct the inquiry. No one is better qualified to carry it out.

I would also like to associate myself with the thanks and appreciation expressed in the House to all of those who have given such unstinting help in this terrible situation.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not feel that it would be wiser, since this inquiry has now been ordered, if no one made statements as to the cause of this tragedy? It should be a matter for the tribunal to investigate rather than for anyone, however eminent, to make statements. Would he also reassure the House that the inquiry will not confine itself to the dangers from existing slag heaps in South Wales? From my own knowledge I can tell of one slag heap in North Wales, not owned by the National Coal Board, which gave some trouble some years ago. I am sure that the House is very pleased to hear the Secretary of State say that the legal position with regard to responsibility for these tips is being investigated by the Lord Justice Edmund Davies committee.

Mr. Hughes

The possible causes of the accident are a matter for the inquiry, and it is inappropriate and improper for me or anyone else to comment upon them.

We are taking similar action in relation to tips in North Wales.

Mr. Berry

As a member of a Merthyr family and as one who had the privilege of holding an ancient office in the county only a short time ago, may I add my sympathies to those already expressed. May I also express my admiration for the people of Merthyr for the way in which they have struggled through these past few days, so typical of them in times of adversity.

Finally, may I express the hope that the inquiry, under Lord Justice Edmund Davies, than whom there could be no more suitable chairman, may find a solution which will ensure that never again will such a disaster occur, either in Wales or any other part of the country.

Mr. Arthur Pearson

While associating myself with the entirely appropriate condolences and tributes, and although welcoming what the Secretary of State has said about intensified inspections, may I ask him whether the inspections will be regular and in association with the engineering departments of local authorities who are closest to the people in these areas? Is he aware of the growing anxieties of people living near to these tips, and of the danger in mentioning the three dangerous tips, since this will cause greater anxiety?

Mr. Hughes

As I have informed the House, the Coal Board is inspecting and maintaining a continual watch on the tips which it regards as presenting a hazard. Local authorities are very much aware of the problem and I have asked them to look carefully at all tips which do not belong to the Coal Board and which lie in their areas. I can tell the House that local authorities who may feel that they do not have the expert advice to look carefully at a tip and assess whether it is a hazard will be able, on request to the Coal Board, to obtain the advice of the Board's engineers. I am grateful to the Board for making this offer.

Mr. Probert

While welcoming what my hon. Friend has said, may I ask him if, when asking local authorities to report on this matter, he will impress upon them the urgency of such reports, in view of the prevailing anxiety? In addition, will he recommend that local authorities should obtain, not only the advice of the Coal Board's experts, but of outside experts, for obvious reasons?

Mr. Hughes

Certainly. I have asked for reports from the Coal Board and I have discussed this matter with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power. We shall be working in close collaboration to obtain up-to-date and urgent reports of all the spoil heaps in South Wales, in order to allay the anxieties which I know my hon. Friend and his constituents feel.

Dr. David Kerr

I am perhaps not the most appropriate person to say this, but on behalf of a constituency which does not live under the constant threats, and the ugliness of a bygone age, and on behalf of most of us in this House, may I say that this tragedy has reminded people a long way from Wales that we are still one nation.

May I also offer the Secretary of State for Wales an assurance that, whatever the Government decide to do, first, to ensure that this sort of tragedy never recurs and, secondly, to see that the children of Aberfan have a fitting memorial in the future, he will have the fullest support from everyone all over the country.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.