§ EARL RUSSELL rose to call attention to the fatal accident in an inspection chamber of the Notting Hill Electric Light Company on 7th October, by which three men lost their lives, and to ask what steps the Ministry of Transport is taking to prevent such accidents. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I desire to call attention to a fatal accident of a deplorable character, and when I have stated the facts I want to ask your Lordships' agreement to some criticism that I have to make. If I make any mistake in stating the facts the noble Viscount opposite no doubt will put me right. I shall be glad to be interrupted. As I understand, what happened was this. On October 7 two workmen who were in the employ of the Notting Hill Electric Light Company were sent to inspect or do some work at one of those manholes of considerable size underneath the street which are used for electric light mains. When they opened the manhole and descended into it they were overcome by lethal fumes. Whether there was an escape from a gas pipe or whether there was some other kind of gas I am not sure, but there is no doubt they were overcome by lethal fumes. A Metropolitan police constable who was there, with that gallantry and courage and disregard of 55 personal safety which I think always marks the police, went to their assistance and attempted to rescue them. The result was that he also was overcome, and these three innocent people lost their lives.
§ I think I am right in saying that it was stated in the Press that this manhole had not been opened for a period exceeding twenty years. I think it said twenty-three years. If those are the facts that seems to me to be an accident which can very properly be called preventible, and not only one which was preventible but one which ought to have been prevented. If a manhole in a London street has not been opened for over twenty years it is a fair presumption that there will be an accumulation there of some kind of deleterious gas, though not, perhaps, always so rapidly lethal as in this case. Methods ought to be provided by those who are responsible for sending men to work there either to test the gas in some way or to have some sort of blowing apparatus for carrying gas away before the men descend. As I understand this accident, it was of that class, and no apparatus was provided, no precautions were taken and no tests were made. As a result two innocent workmen and a constable, who had nothing whatever to do with the matter, lost their lives.
§ I felt so strongly in this matter that I wrote at once to the Ministry of Transport and asked them if they would not think it proper to be represented at the coroner's inquest, which must necessarily be held, and there to put questions as to the responsibility of the person or persons who had sent these men down on this operation without taking any precautions. To that letter I have received no reply and no acknowledgment to this day, and when the inquest was held I did not discover from the report that any representative of the Ministry was present or that any questions were put elucidating or tending to fix the responsibility for this accident. The coroner's jury appear, quite easily and without any criticism or question, to have returned a verdict of "Accidental death." Technically, no doubt, this was accidental death, but it seems to me to have been a death which might so well have been contemplated and so easily prevented that responsibility for it ought to have been fixed somewhere and there should have been some reprimand of the person upon whom responsibility 56 rested. More than that, I suggested to the Ministry that, they having, I believe, power to make regulations applying to electric light companies, some regulation might very well be made in regard to the inspection of manholes which have not been opened for whatever period of years it was thought fit to fix, providing for some kind of test or safety apparatus before they are opened. I wrote again after the inquest, and of that letter I have received an acknowledgment from the Electricity Commissioners. I do not know whether I ought to have written to them in the first place or not, but no doubt the noble Viscount will tell me when he replies. Beyond a bare acknowledgment I have heard nothing from them.
§ I bring this matter to your Lordships' notice to-day because I am sure that all your Lordships will feel, as I felt, that if men's lives can be preserved by taking the simplest precautions, and if all precautions have been neglected and men's lives have been lost because of the absence of those precautions, the Government Department concerned ought to take such steps as it can to prevent the recurrence of such accidents. It is merely in the hope of preventing the recurrence of any accidents which can so easily be prevented with a minimum of foresight that I have put this Question down, and I Shall be glad to hear what the noble Viscount has to say.
§ THE FIRST COMMISSIONER OF WORKS (VISCOUNT PEEL)
My Lords, I do not, I think, altogether differ from the noble Earl opposite as to the version of the facts that he has given to your Lordships. It is, of course, a most unfortunate event that three men, as he stated, lost their lives in the way that he has described. He is also, I think, correct in stating that this shaft—there is some doubt as to what this place should be called—had not been opened for something like twenty years.
§ VISCOUNT PEEL
I am informed that it was built in 1903, I think by the London County Council, but I have not been able to ascertain for what purpose the shaft was constructed. At any rate the shaft had been closed down. Then I understand that this company—and naturally I cannot take any responsi- 57 bility as representing the Ministry for the action of the company—thought that this shaft would form a means of access to some of their cables. The top of it was taken off, and then I must refer, I think, for the facts to the inquiry before the coroner, where the details came out most clearly. It appears that the assistant engineer employed by the Notting Hill Electric Light Co. warned this man that it was unsafe, when the top of the shaft had been taken out, to descend by the iron steps that I understand were there. The man did descend, though he was again warned that it would be dangerous to do so. It is not, of course, my business to suggest that the assistant engineer ought to have more forcibly brought before this man the danger of what he was doing in descending a shaft that had not been open for twenty years.
As the noble Earl has very justly stated it is almost common knowledge that in London and elsewhere some very disagreeable gases—in this case I believe it was carbon dioxide—accumulate in a shaft of that kind. The coroner's jury, as has been said, brought in a verdict of "Accidental death," and it is not my business to criticise or interfere in any way with that verdict. The view of the Ministry of Transport is that the cause of the accident was perfectly clear and that accordingly there is nothing to be gained by an inquiry, the facts having been fully set out at the coroner's inquest. The noble Earl also alluded to the responsible Department. I am not clear that there is any Department that is responsible in this kind of case. It is true, I believe, that the Electricity Commissioners make regulations about inspection chambers, but this can hardly be called an inspection chamber, because it was some disused shaft which the company for their own purposes thought might be made use of for examining these cables.
I do not wish to interrupt the noble Viscount, but surety if it is a chamber for inspection it is an inspection chamber.
§ VISCOUNT PEEL
No, that is just what I am trying to point out. It is neither a 58 chamber for inspection nor an inspection chamber. There is a technical definition of what an inspection chamber is, and I presume that, if some company or person chooses to use for the purpose of inspection a chamber or shaft that is not an inspection chamber, no Government Department can be censured merely because they have laid down rules about inspection chambers. I do not want to make any fine distinctions in this case, but I understand that the general view of the Ministry of Transport is that they have no responsibility in this affair, and that the facts of the case are very clearly known. If, of course, there is any matter that the noble Earl or any of your Lordships would like me to represent to the Electricity Commissioners, I should be very glad to do so. This was a very unfortunate accident—one of those accidents which, I suppose, must be extremely unusual, because it occurred through the discovery and use of an ancient shaft that had not been opened for some time. Indeed, as I have said, the accident might never have occurred if the assistant engineer had more forcibly laid his commands upon the man who descended.
I should like to ask the noble Viscount if I am not right in thinking that some body—either the Ministry of Transport or the Electricity Commissioners—has powers to make regulations for the safety of the public and for other purposes—namely, the powers under which these regulations about inspection chambers are made. Whether this was an inspection chamber or a disused shaft, it is surely possible for them to make regulations about any hole in the ground used for electric light purposes, and accordingly I would urge that they should make some regulation providing for the safety of those who use these places.
§ House adjourned at five o'clock.