HL Deb 25 October 1966 vol 277 cc201-13

2.46 p.m.

THE MINISTER WITHOUT PORTFOLIO (LORD CHAMPION) rose to move to resolve, That it is expedient that a Tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, viz, the causes of and all the circumstances relating to the disaster at Aberfan, Merthyr Tydfil, on Friday the 21st day of October, 1966. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I know that your Lordships will wish to express your deep sympathy with all those who have been bereaved as the result of the disaster at Aberfan in South Wales, where a coal tip avalanched on Friday morning into a farm house, twenty houses and two schools. As the Secretary of State for Wales stated yesterday in another place, despite all the efforts of the rescuers, few lives could be saved. The latest figures are that 145 bodies have now been recovered and about 47 persons are still unaccounted for. The work of recovering and identifying bodies is still going on.

I am sure, too, that your Lordships will wish to express your appreciation of the efforts made by the rescuers—the Merthyr County Borough Council, other local authorities, national organisations and services and the volunteers from among the public who have been engaged on the appallingly difficult tasks of rescue and reclamation. Your Lordships may think too that the Secretary of State for Wales who went direct to the site directly he heard of the disaster and who stayed there throughout the Friday, Saturday and Sunday accompanied by his Minister of State, Parliamentary Under-Secretary and senior officials, has played his part.

As regards the possibility of further slippages taking place at the site, the latest reports show that the tip is now generally stable, and while there may be local adjustments of portions of it these should not give rise to concern: and the alarm system that has been installed should give adequate warning if this proves necessary.

Everything in human power must be done to ensure that such a disaster never happens again. To this end the National Coal Board have intensified their inspection procedures and in certain cases have put special precautionary measures in hand. The Secretary of State for Wales has asked the local authorities to inspect spoil heaps not owned or operated by the Coal Board and to identify which of these might constitute a hazard. It is possible that the present legal responsibilities and powers in relation to the safety of pit heaps need to be extended, and this will be one of the important questions to be considered in the Inquiry to be made by Lord Justice Edmund Davies.

The Government decided within a few hours of the tragedy to announce that such an Inquiry would be held, that it would be judicial in character and that it would be public, and I believe that this will have correctly reflected the wishes of your Lordships and of the country. The choice of Lord Justice Edmund Davies to head the Inquiry will, I am sure, be similarly welcomed by you, and he is in Merthyr to-day for his first inspection of the scene.

This brings me to the Motion on the Order Paper which I am now moving. Your Lordships will, I am certain, be desirous that the Inquiry under Lord Justice Edmund Davies be clothed with all the powers that it may need to get at the truth. The Prime Minister will be explaining later this afternoon in another place that, after consultation with the learned Judge and the Secretary of State for Wales, he felt that these powers could be given only by action under The Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. As he will be explaining, in the past few years there has been criticism of the Act and, as your Lordships know, a Royal Commission was appointed in July, 1955, to examine its working and to make recommendations for any amendments to the Act that might be needed. But doubts about that Act should not prevent us from recognising that, whatever changes may or may not be needed, it is that Act—and that Act alone to-day—which can be invoked for the purposes required.

No inquiry, no action within your Lordships' power, can ever set back the clock to 9 a.m. last Friday, to restore to their grieving parents, and sisters and brothers, the children who lost their lives. A speedy building programme can replace the houses destroyed: it can never recreate the homes that were destroyed. Still less can any action in our power restore to this bereaved community the loss of an entire age-group, an entire generation in miniature, of its children. All your Lordships here to-day can do is to provide part of the means of reaching the truth, if the truth can ever be reached. It is not, I submit, for your Lordships to seek to anticipate those findings by any comment or speculation. The fullest confidence must be placed in the learned Chairman, and his colleagues—who I hope can be named to-day or very shortly—to provide what poor solace can be provided by their findings about the cause of the tragedy and—perhaps more important now—to make recommendations which may prevent a repetition of that tragedy in another area, perhaps even another land. I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That it is expedient that a Tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, viz. the causes of and all the circumstances relating to the disaster at Aberfan, Merthyr Tydfil, on Friday the 21st day of October, 1966.—(Lord Champion).


My Lords, we on these Benches are in the fullest agreement with this Motion which has been so well moved by the noble Lord, Lord Champion. I speak with very deep feelings on this particular disaster, as I live in a neighbouring valley only a few miles from Aberfan, and I have seen something of the stunned horror of the people of South Wales when they heard the terrible news. South Wales is used to mining disasters, but perhaps what makes it even harder to bear this fearful horror is that it involves the lives of so many children. Surely, my Lords, it must be one of the most horrifying disasters in living memory in time of peace.

We should certainly wish most warmly to support the noble Lord, Lord Champion, in his expression of sympathy for those who have been bereaved, and also to join in his tribute to those who tried, often in vain, to rescue victims: not only to the Armed Forces and the Police, the county authorities and the Fire Brigade, but also to the Civil Defence workers and all the voluntary organisations that were involved in the rescue operation—the St. John Ambulance Brigade, the Red Cross, the W.V.S. and many others. We also wish to pay our tribute to the miners themselves, and to all that host of volunteers who worked day and night in the most fearful conditions in an effort to rescue some of those who suffered.

All that remains now, as the noble Lord has said, is to make sure that such a tragedy cannot occur again; and to that end, obviously the best course is to set up a Tribunal. We certainly endorse most warmly the appointment of Lord Justice Edmund Davies, who comes from my own home town of Mountain Ash and has proved himself to be not only a Judge of great ability but also a man of great humanity. I know that the whole House will wish him the very best success in his great task.

2.54 p.m.


My Lords, it is with deep sorrow that we on these Benches wish to be joined in the tributes that have been paid to-day, and we want our sympathy to be extended to those who have been bereaved in this dreadful disaster. I know the area very well. My father was born in Mountain Ash, and my own home town is a few miles away from Aberfan, on the edge of the South Wales coalfield. We in South Wales, as the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has said, have had throughout the years many, many instances of fatalities due to accidents in the mines: but, so far as I am aware, this is the first time that our children have suffered in this way. This has come as a special blow to us in South Wales. We are very glad indeed that Lord Justice Edmund Davies has been appointed to preside over the Tribunal, and we are certain that no better man could have been found. He is from the area, and, as I know from personal knowledge, his character is such that there will be no whitewashing: he will find out what happened, why it happened, whose was the responsibility for it happening and what lessons can be drawn for the future.

It is no use my disguising the fact that feeling in South Wales is extremely high at the moment—I have never known it higher—particularly as for some time past pressure has been brought—perhaps I should say that efforts have been made to try to bring pressure—on the Coal Board and on the authorities to remove the tips in South Wales, not only because of their danger, but also for æsthetic reasons and by reason of the economic possibilities which would thereby be provided. But nothing has been done. There are over 500 tips in South Wales and we do not know—no one knows—how many of these are dangerous. In the House of Commons yesterday the Secretary of State for Wales said that the National Coal Board had informed him that three tips in the near vicinity of Aberfan were regarded as presenting a hazard. One of them, at Cilfynydd, is actually on fire. To my knowledge, not long ago some part of that tip slid down and overran the road and went into the river. In many cases these tips overshadow a village or small hamlet, and one can imagine the feelings of the people in those areas.

The noble Lord, Lord Champion, has said that the Secretary of State for Wales has asked the local authorities to inspect spoil heaps not owned or operated by the Coal Board, and to identify which of these might constitute a hazard. Perhaps the noble Lord would be good enough to inform us how it is proposed that the local authorities should carry out this duty. It is a very difficult task to try to ascertain what the state of a tip is. It looks perfectly all right on the top, but how does one ascertain what is happening underneath? It seems to me that to thrust this duty on to local authorities, who may be rural district councils or, at most, urban district councils, is to put upon them a duty which they are not competent to perform. I think this is a matter—and we in South Wales are entitled to have it regarded as such—of national importance, the responsibility for which is not to be thrown on some small rural district council. The Government should do this.

These tips have been there for many years. They have an historical character, and due to them, and the workings which they represent, the people of this country became rich and prosperous. It is high time that the people of this country repaid some of the prosperity which their forbears have had, and the country has had, by giving the people of South Wales a square deal and in putting into operation now, straight away, not at some future time, a programme to put this situation right. Why cannot the Royal Engineers be sent there? At present there are 200 soldiers standing on the top of the tip at Aberfan trying to ascertain whether it is slipping or not. Why cannot the Royal Engineers go to Wales to make an investigation of all these tips that over-hang villages or hamlets? Those are the dangerous ones. If they do not overhang villages or hamlets, all that will happen, if they tumble, is that they will tumble into a meadow or a road, and that does not matter particularly in this context. But those that overhang houses, schools, churches or any other inhabited place should be dealt with by the Government now, as a matter of urgency, and as a national obligation to the people of my country.

Finally, may I say that we on these Benches feel a deep sense of gratitude to all those who, since the disaster, have been helping so nobly at Aberfan. We send our gratitude to them, and we know that they will feel repaid in the help they have been able to give to these poor stricken people at Aberfan.

3.1 p.m.


My Lords, having lived in a mining community all my life, having been connected with the industry for many years, and having worked underground for twenty years, I feel that I must associate myself with this expression of sympathy to the people of Aberfan and to the mining communities throughout the whole country.

Last Friday was a sad day for the nation. What happened at Aberfan was perhaps the greatest surface catastrophe that has occurred in the history of coal-mining in this country. It was not only a sad day for the nation, and certainly for the whole mining community of Great Britain: it was saddest of all for the people of Aberfan. One's emotions almost overtake one's capability of expressing oneself adequately on a Motion of this kind. But on behalf of the mining area of Nottingham shire, from where I come, I feel it incumbent upon me, in this place, to associate myself with this expression of sympathy to the people of Aberfan.

Some of us know the hazards underground. Happily, explosions of great magnitude are less frequent than they used to be. Perhaps the one that comes to mind most readily is not far away from Aberfan. That was in 1913, at Senghenydd, when more than 400 miners lost their lives underground. This time a generation of children have been lost, and it is an unhappy thought that a catastrophe of this kind could happen. I am glad to know that the Government have taken the step of instituting an Inquiry so quickly. It is not for me—I do not think it is for anyone at this stage—to go into the whys and wherefores. The evidence at the Inquiry will no doubt be of such a far-reaching character—at any rate, we hope it will be—that it will be possible to take steps to ensure that a catastrophe of this kind can never happen again.

While the noble Lord opposite was speaking, I was thinking that coal tips do not exist only in Wales: they are in all mining areas of the country. It may be that the greatest hazards and the greatest dangers exist where man-made mountains are built on natural mountains. I think one can expect that. I hope that, as a result of the Inquiry, greater diligence will be applied to the safety of these tips, not only in the valleys of Wales, but throughout all mining areas. I could give instances in the County of Nottingham shire where pit tips have slipped. But the hazards there are not so great as they are in South Wales, where the geography is such as it is.

Before I sit down, may I say this? I think that the choice of the Chairman who is to conduct the Inquiry is an admirable one. First of all, he is a native of Wales, and, secondly, he speaks the Welsh language. In an Inquiry of this kind I am sure that that will be a very useful asset. Whilst we cannot do other than express our sympathy at what has taken place, we hope that the labours of the Chairman and the members of the Inquiry will ensure that a catastrophe of this kind will never happen again.

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, if I may I should like to join with the expression of sympathy so eloquently voiced by the noble Lord, Lord Champion, and my noble friend Lord Aberdare in the tributes paid to those who have worked so well on the rescue operations.

I rise to ask the noble Lord some questions with regard to this Motion. I think it was absolutely right to say immediately that there would be an Inquiry, and I congratulate Her Majesty's Government on having procured the services of Lord Justice Edmund Davies to conduct the Inquiry. I am absolutely certain, knowing him, that the Inquiry will be as thorough as it can be, and that he will do his utmost to elicit the truth as to the causes of this terrible tragedy so that we may learn from it to ensure that nothing of the same kind may happen again.

The Motion before your Lordships is to invoke the powers of the Tribunals of Inquiry Act 1921. The Tribunal can sit in public without that being done. What is the purpose of this Motion? As I understand it, the only thing that this Tribunal will be able to do, which it could not do if this Motion was not passed, is to compel the attendance of witnesses and to secure the production of documents. It has often been said that one ought to think very seriously indeed before invoking the powers of this Act, and that they should be invoked only when the need for them was clearly established. I agree that the need for an Inquiry is absolutely clear. But is it really necessary to arm this Tribunal now with these powers? I do not believe that there is a single person or body who will not co-operate to the utmost with Lord Justice Edmund Davies in the investigation of this matter. I find it difficult to believe that anyone would refuse to appear before him. One of the powers he has not got at the moment is to compel attendance. I also find it difficult to believe that anyone would withhold documents from his inspection—and that relates to the other power he will get following upon the passage of this Resolution.

So, for myself, I must say that I feel that at the moment it is really premature to bring this powerful Act into force. I can well see that this House would readily grant these powers if there were any ground for supposing that there would be a failure on anyone's part to co-operate with the Tribunal. But in the tragic circumstances of this case, I must say that I feel it is very unlikely. But still, as these powers are sought, I certainly do not oppose the granting of them, but venture to utter these words because I doubt the necessity of invoking them at this juncture. I think there are cases when they may be used, and I say in all seriousness to the noble Lord that I hope that Her Majesty's Government will seriously consider their application in relation to another Inquiry which was announced yesterday.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, as a Welshman who was born and bred in a mining community, as one who worked for a short while down a coal mine, and as one who is still closely connected with the North Wales coalfield, I should like to add my tribute, having listened to the moving tributes paid by both sides of the House. This devastating tragedy has no precedent, even in the history of coal mining, a history which is a record of the loss of human lives and of accidents. It has been truly said that there is blood on every lump of coal. In former days we who lived in mining communities took fatal accidents at the mine for granted. Accidents were daily affairs. Indeed, there is a village not far from my home where if an ambulance did not pass through on any day the villagers took it for granted that there was no work at the nearby colliery.

Now, thanks to the nationalisation of this industry and to the precautions taken by the National Coal Board, the hazards of coal mining have undoubtedly been greatly reduced and the toll of human lives has been well-nigh eliminated. Anyone who has had experience of working down a coal mine will readily agree with me when I say that a miner is always a hero. When I parade through the corridors of this Palace of Westminster and see the statues which have been put up in honour of men who have served this nation I think of the 250 bodies half-a-mile down in the bowels of the earth five miles from my home, where there is not a stone or a plaque to commemorate their sacrifice for the nation. I am referring to the great disaster of Gresford colliery in 1932.

As I said before, we have been accustomed to take for granted the tolls of the mining industry, the loss of life. As one result of this terrible disaster at Aberfan I hope—and I sincerely hope—that never again shall we hear complaints about the price of coal. When I was a Member of the other place nothing used to rile me so much as to see sneers on the faces of some people when it was revealed occasionally that the N.C.B. was showing a loss.

Before I resume my seat may I, on behalf of the people of Wales, thank the Prime Minister for the prompt action he took on Friday morning, and for declaring that no amount of money would stand in the way of everything being done to relieve the situation at Aberfan. I am grateful also to the Secretary of State for Wales for declaring immediately that an Inquiry is to be held forthwith, and I am very glad that it will be my personal friend, Lord Justice Edmund Davies, who will be the Chairman of that Tribunal. Last Wednesday I spoke here and made my maiden speech. I dealt with Wales, calling the attention of this House to a certain problem there. Little did I think that within 48 hours the eyes of the whole world would be on this little country town.

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, in view of what has been said so eloquently I think it is seemly that one other word should be added, and I propose to try to add it. I will not repeat what has already been said as to the misery at Aberfan and the need for this particular measure, and for such precautions as ought properly to follow the findings of the Tribunal. I will not anticipate those findings, but I can speak as a churchman, and in particular in this case as a representative of that Non-conformacy which has been in such large measure the glory of these Welsh valleys.

It will not be easy for the people of Aberfan to sing the hymns to which they are accustomed, and with the fervour which we have all cherished and, in many cases, envied. It will be of some consolation, perhaps, to some of them to know that a thorough investigation will be made into the cause of this grievous tragedy, that it may not occur again, And I hope that there may be some little recognition on the part of the great Non-conformist Churches of this country of how deep are our feelings and how profound our regret, and how ardent are our hopes that this tragedy will not recur but will even be a means of preventing other tragedies of this type and, indeed, of providing a securer place for these people of God to live in.

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, I desire to associate myself and those whom I represent with this Resolution of very deep sympathy for the people of Aberfan, and with the desire in the House that steps may be taken to prevent a recurrence of such a dreadful disaster. I associate myself very much with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Maelor, concerning the continuous danger which those engaged in coal mining have to face.

I personally have had the mortifying experience of having to conduct a funeral where over 200 miners were buried in the mine, and I can see now, and shall always see, the faces of a huge congregation of men and women mourning the loss of loved ones, men buried while they endeavoured to give to the people of this country the means whereby they might warm themselves by their own firesides. My heart will always be warm with sympathy for men who spend almost a quarter of their lives in the bowels of the earth, providing the amenities for those of us who can live all our lives above the surface of the soil, enjoying the air and sunshine. I closely associate myself with what has been said, and particularly would I emphasise the appeal made for a quick examination of any danger spot so that this kind of tragedy may not occur again.


My Lords, I am sure the whole House is grateful to those noble Lords who have this afternoon expressed what this House feels about this terrible tragedy that shook South Wales last Friday. It would not be right for me to attempt to pile on top of the things which have been said any comments of my own. But as someone who lives within about four and a half miles of this area, and who has a knowledge of the mining community, I can only say, on behalf of those who live there, "Thank you" to those noble Lords who have spoken and to this House for the way in which the speeches have been received.

I would only reply to the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, that the local authorities, we feel, are the appropriate people to carry out the examination, in the first place, of certain of these pit-heaps. The Secretary of State has made it quite clear that the National Coal Board has offered its officials and engineers to the local authorities in any case where the local authority might feel that its staff is not adequate for the job. We feel that this offer will be accepted in such cases. To the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, I can only say that the Government, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister having carefully considered this matter, with the best advice available, felt that it would be right in the circumstances to invoke the powers available to us under the 1921 Act. But, of course, what he has said in this connection we shall very carefully consider in connection with anything that may arise in the future which might cause us to invoke these powers.

Perhaps I may say a word about one or two of the tributes that were paid by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. He mentioned so many groups, voluntary organisations and so on, and I am grateful to him for doing that—I did not do it in my speech. But there is one tribute that I would like to add, and that is to the youth who came along, those who were described by those commenting on television: the youngsters who were there in their winkle-pickers and check trousers and whom we tend to look upon as not the flower of the nation that we were at their age. But these youngsters were there doing a magnificent job of work, and I would conclude by adding to the tributes that he paid a tribute to those youngsters of ours who were there on Friday, Saturday and Sunday last.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord a question. We all have tremendous sympathy with everything that has been said, but this question of the local authorities inspecting pits ought to be reconsidered. It cannot but be dangerous to allow people not technically expert in this matter to give a view which might then be accepted for the next five, six, seven, eight months. There are construction firms, with properly qualified people, mining companies, and others, whose resources ought to be drawn on now. It is highly dangerous to allow an inexpert local authority to take the responsibility of commenting on a situation so grave as this might be.


My Lords, I will bring what the noble Lord has said to the notice of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales.

On Question, Resolution agreed to.