§ The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the mine accident at Goldborne colliery.
It is with the greatest regret that I have to report to the House on the accident that took place yesterday at Goldborne colliery in Lancashire in the National Coal Board's western area.
A maintenance team was in the colliery yesterday morning. At about 11.25 a.m. there was an explosion. Three men were killed and eight others were injured. The injured are in Withington hospital, Manchester, and the latest information from the hospital is that all have extensive burns and lung injuries and are critically ill. Two are in the burns unit and the remaining six are in the intensive care unit.
The precise cause of the explosion is not at present known. Her Majesty's deputy chief inspector of mines is already at the colliery, with other mines inspectors and personnel of the Safety in Mines Research Establishment. A preliminary investigation is being carried out into the causes and circumstances of the accident. The Health and Safety Commission will consider what further action is necessary. There will be a thorough investigation into the causes and circumstances of the accident.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Evans) and I visited the colliery yesterday, as soon as we heard the news, to meet the colliery manager, National Coal Board and trade union officials, members of the Mines Inspectorate, and the mine rescue team.
I am sure that the House will wish to join me and my hon. Friend, who is precluded by his office from raising this matter, in expressing our sincere sympathy with those who were injured and the relatives of those who were killed, our deep concern for the recovery of the injured men, and our gratitude to the rescue teams, ambulance and hospital staff and all those concerned with the rescue operation who responded so magnificently.
§ Mr. Tom King
I should like to associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of sympathy conveyed by the Secretary of State to the relatives and victims of this tragic accident. We should also like to be associated with his expressions of concern for the injured in hospital. We note with deep concern the gravity of their injuries, as indicated in the statement, and certainly hope that they will make a satisfactory recovery.
We note that the circumstances of the accident are not yet fully known. Therefore, it would obviously be sensible to await the outcome of the thorough investigation that the Secretary of State has indicated will be made. We shall be interested in the outcome of that investigation to see what lessons can be learned, so that, as far as humanly possible, such tragic accidents may be avoided in future.
§ Mr. Benn
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as will be those concerned, for associating the Opposition with the statement that I made.
We must await the outcome of the inquiry. In view of the terrible injuries suffered by those concerned, clearly there must be the fullest possible investigation. This is a reminder of the price that is still paid in human life for the coal used by this country.
§ Mr. Woodall
Will my right hon. Friend convey to the relatives of the deceased and of those who were seriously injured the serious and heartfelt condolences of the mining group in this House in the face of this tragic accident?
This is the third occasion during his period as Secretary of State for Energy on which my right hon. Friend has had to make statements about serious accidents in the mining industry: one in Hemsworth—my constituency—one within the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Kelley) and now one within the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Evans). Will he convey our most heartfelt thanks to the mine rescue team for its efforts in these tragic circumstances? Will he also convey to the National Coal Board our feeling that a thorough and intensive investigation should be undertaken into the causes of 1099 the incident and that all possible measures to eradicate further incidents of this nature should be implemented?
§ Mr. Benn
Yes, I shall certainly do that. This is indeed the third mining disaster—Houghton le Main, Bentley and now Goldborne—which I have attended as Secretary of State. I shall certainly convey the views of the mining group to those concerned. I had the opportunity of seeing Sid Vincent when he returned to the surface yesterday. I am sure that the points made by my hon. Friend, with his knowledge of the mining industry, will be widely appreciated and understood.
§ Mr. Stott
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is understandable sadness today in the tightly-knit coal mining community of south-east Lancashire? I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Evans), together with myself and my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Mr. Fitch), for Ince (Mr. McGuire) and for Leigh (Mr. Boardman), would wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy and condolences to the families of our constituents who were involved in this tragic accident. We also express our deep gratitude to the mines rescue service, together with the ambulance men from Wigan who came to the scene very promptly.
When the inquiry into this tragedy is completed, will my right hon Friend ensure that its findings are made public, in order to assist us in our broader understanding of the hazards of the coal mining industry?
§ Mr. Benn
The latter point made by my hon. Friend is the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive. The inquiry will follow the normal practice in such matters. I understand the reason why my hon. Friend put that question.
Apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Newton, who was at the colliery with me, having come immediately he heard the news, I was able to contact my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Fitch), but others were not available. However, I am sure that those concerned appreciate that Members with an interest in the coal mining industry and in the colliery have expressed their feelings.
§ Mr. Kelley
Will my right hon. Friend convey to those who have been bereaved in this tragic affair and to those who 1100 played such a magnificent part in the rescue operations how much we in Don Valley, who have recently been involved in a similar situation, appreciate their efforts and sympathise with the relatives and victims of this sad event?
Will my right hon. Friend also convey to those who are likely to be required to conduct the inquiry into this affair the fact that miners generally, not only the mining group in the House, would be very much obliged if they would investigate the circumstances that led to an accumulation of methane gas and the means of ignition at the point where the explosion took place? We should also appreciate that report being supplied to Members of the House.
§ Mr. Benn
The presence of methane gas and the ignition that brought about the explosion, which I believe was very severe, must be a matter of concern to everyone in the industry. In view of all that has been said on both sides of the House following my statement, I think that it would be appropriate if I were to send copies of today's Hansard to those concerned, so that they may know the deep feelings behind the points made by hon. Members in response to my statement.
§ Mr. Skinner
Is the Minister aware that miners everywhere would wish to be associated with the tribute that he has paid this afternoon to all the families involved and to the rescue people concerned? Will he also direct the inquiry, when it takes place, to look at this matter not merely specifically in relation to the way in which the incident occurred at Goldborne colliery but also against the disturbing background of the new productivity agreement? Does the Secretary of State accept that, based on the figures of 1978 as opposed to 1970—a full year of the productivity agreement—deaths in the mining industry have risen by more than 50 per cent. and that other accident rates have shown a disturbing upward trend? It would be helpful if this inquiry looked into this matter remembering that general background, apart from any specific incident.
§ Mr. Benn
I am aware of the separate and parallel points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). He mentioned the relationship that there may be, or may be thought to 1101 be, between pay arrangements and safety. The figures that I have do not entirely bear out the argument that there has been a general increase in accidents. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover will accept that an explosion when a maintenance team was at work on a Sunday would not, of itself, bear on that aspect one way or the other.