HC Deb 22 March 1973 vol 853 cc658-60
Mr. Albert Roberts

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether he will make a statement concerning the disaster at Lofthouse Colliery.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Peter Walker)

As hon. Members will know, we have learned with the greatest regret that at approximately 2.30 a.m. yesterday during the night production shift at Lofthouse colliery there was a sudden and serious rush of water into a coal face where 19 men were working. Twelve of the men reached safety, but seven were trapped by the rising water.

The face is in the 3 ft high Flocton seam, some 250 yards below ground. Because of the gradients of the seam and the roadways we all hope that at least some of the men may have reached positions where there may be sufficient air for them to survive until they can be reached. Every effort is being made to reduce the water level by pumping and by plugging four old shafts in the vicinity which appear to be supplying at least some of the water. In addition, an attempt is being made to drill a narrow hole into the place where the men are most likely to be.

I must not, however, minimise the difficulties. The presence of waterbearing strata and the depth of the seam make operations difficult. Mr. Ezra, the Chairman of the NCB, two other members of the Board, and Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Mines and Quarries have already visited the colliery. My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry is there at this moment.

I know that I was speaking for all Members of the House, too, when I asked for our sympathy to be conveyed to the anxious relatives and friends of the missing men. I know, too, that all Members of the House will wish to associate themselves with the following message which I have received from Her Majesty the Queen: I was deeply distressed to learn of the accident at Lofthouse Colliery yesterday. My thoughts today were with the relatives of those who are trapped as well as those who are so courageously trying to rescue them. 1 pray that they may be in time.

Mr. Roberts

I am sure that the whole House will be grateful both to Her Majesty the Queen and to the right hon. Gentleman for sending these expressions of sympathy. The agonising suspense that the relatives must be going through is something that we can well understand.

I should like to refer to my hon. Friends the Members for Wakefield (Mr. Walter Harrison) and Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) as I understand that two of the miners involved come from their constituencies.

I was a mines inspector before coming to the House of Commons. Lofthouse was one of the pits that I used to inspect before 1951 and it was always looked upon as a safe pit.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that many questions ought to be asked. I do not want to speculate. I am pretty conversant with the Coal Mines Act 1911 and the Mines and Quarries Act 1954, in which I played a part. I will leave the matter there at the moment because now is not the time to speculate.

Mr. Walker

I assure the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that when more facts are known to me I shall decide which is the best and most appropriate method of a quick and effective inquiry into exactly what has taken place.

Mr. Varley

Following what my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. Albert Roberts) and the Secretary of State said, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that the thoughts of all on this side of the House are with those who have been keeping their vigil at Outwood during the long, agonising hours and that thousands in mining communities throughout the country share in the spirit of that vigil?

The right hon. Gentleman told us that eveything possible is being done. We pray, even now, that the men will come out alive. Whatever the outcome, an inquiry into this accident will clearly be necessary. In addition, will the right hon. Gentleman urge the Coal Board to launch an urgent survey of uncharted abandoned mine workings? For, even in today's modern mining industry, the Coal Board and the miners have to cope with the legacy of the past—a legacy at least partly responsible for the sombre tally of 63 miners killed down the pits in the past year as well as for the horrifying plight of the seven men on whom the whole nation's attention is focussed today.

Mr. Walker

Certainly I associate myself with the views expressed by the hon. Gentleman as to the anxiety of all mining communities throughout the country, and, indeed, the whole country, during this period.

Regarding previous shafts and their dangers to the mining industry, I think it is true to say that the National Coal Board has a good record of safety, certainly by international comparisons, and I am sure that it is always anxious to improve upon this position.

Concerning the presence of old shafts in this area—the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. Albert Roberts) told us that within his knowledge this was known as a safe pit—there are shafts which were last used in the 1830s which were known to the Coal Board but not considered to be of danger. One of the difficulties is that there are areas where mine shafts go back to Roman times and it is difficult to discover exactly where they have been made. I am sure that the view expressed by the hon. Gentleman—that everything possible should be done to prevent danger to the lives of people mining coal— will be noted.