HL Deb 13 February 1992 vol 535 cc845-69

3.45 p.m.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee. —(Lord Cavendish of Furness.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Lord Dean of Beswick

I am sure that the Committee will understand if, before we proceed to deal with the amendments, I take this opportunity briefly to express on behalf of all Members of this Chamber our deepest sympathy regarding the fatal accident which took place in the North East of England causing the sad loss of the lives of two miners and serious injury to some of their workmates. I believe that I speak for all sides of the Chamber when I send to those workmates our hope for their speedy and complete recovery and when I express our deepest sympathy to the widows and children of those killed.

I can vividly remember reading the terrible headlines about the Gresford accident when I was a newspaper boy; and I was in the Doncaster Rovers football ground for the open-air service for the Cresswell disaster. Sadly such accidents do not end with the funeral; the effects do not suddenly go away. Such tragedies often scar the families and communities who are sadly bereft for a very long time.

Once again, on behalf of all Members in this Chamber I should like to send our deepest sympathy to all those involved. I do not know whether the Minister wishes to respond at this time but I believe that it would be better if he were to do so.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

I am grateful to the noble Lord. On behalf of the Government I should like to stress the fact that we share to the full his concern and sorrow on learning of the tragic accident at Wearmouth colliery early this morning. The noble Lord is surely right to say that the whole Chamber will wish to express the fullest sympathy for the families of the two men who died and of the seven men who were injured.

I should tell the Committee that a full investigation is under way at the colliery to determine the cause of the accident. I am sure we all hope that the findings of such an inquiry will enable measures to be taken to ensure that such a terrible tragedy does not happen again.

Lord Ezra

As someone who was involved for many years in the coal mining industry I should like to express my appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, for having raised the issue before we proceed with the Committee stage of the Bill. It reminds us of the importance of safety in the mining industry. Safety standards in the British mining industry are the best in the world; but, nonetheless, such tragic accidents still occur.

I visited Wearmouth colliery many times during my time at the Coal Board. It is one of the best pits that we have. Its standards of safety are as high as those anywhere else. But even so this tragic accident has occurred. It means that we must remain ever vigilant and we must also bear it in mind during our consideration of the Bill.

Lord Dean of Beswick

I am grateful to the Minister for the kind way in which he responded to my initial remarks and to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for his support. With his tremendous career and record in coal he was close to this type of accident for many years, and knows the full horror it can cause the people who are left.

Clause 1 [Further grants for workforce redeployment and reduction etc.]:

Lord Dean of Beswick moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 15, at end insert: ("( ) After subsection (10) there shall be inserted— ( ) Redundancy terms offered under this grant shall not discriminate between employees in collieries, or other workplaces where the employees have resisted closures or redundancies and those where they have not." ").

The noble Lord said: I understand that Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are grouped together. The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that restructuring grants are not abused by the British Coal Corporation. The workforce should be properly consulted before grants are used to close mines. The amendments must be seen against the background of the Government's closure of 100 mines in the past six years, and the fact that the Government now propose to run down the industry further to the size predicted in the Rothschild Report.

Amendment No. 1 provides that there should be no discrimination between employees who have resisted pit closures and those who have not. The prospect of losing work through a pit closure is one that no employee or his family relishes. They are not likely to welcome the decision. However, we must be certain that the British Coal Corporation does not use the restructuring grants to blackmail miners into agreeing to pit closures by threatening their redundancy payments. We seek a reassurance that such action will not be allowed.

I have worked in industry and I pay tribute to people who are prepared to resist redundancies. They do not battle simply for their own jobs but for those of the people who may succeed them when they retire. Despite the efforts of the British Coal Corporation and the Government, the closure of mines almost destroys the social fabric of some communities.

It is easy to speak from the Dispatch Box when one is not involved in an industry. But I believe that some redundancies in industry generally might have been prevented if the financial inducement to take redundancy had not been so high so as to take the sting out of it. I hope that the Government will pay regard to the sentiments expressed in the amendment.

Amendment No. 2 refers to the colliery review procedure which was introduced after the 1984–85 miners' strike to allow time for reconsideration when there is a threat of a pit closure. There are fears that the British Coal Corporation is now circumventing that procedure. A number of examples of that were raised in Committee in another place (Official Report, 3/12/91, col. 11). Redundancy may be accepted at different stages of a pit closure. With the amendments we seek to ensure that miners are not manipulated into taking a redundancy package before there has been a chance to reconsider the decision to close the pit. At whatever stage in the process it occurs, the redundancy entitlement should be equally favourable. Will the Minister assure the Committee that the redundancy grants will not, and cannot, be abused by the British Coal Corporation in an attempt to blackmail employees at a time when they and their jobs are most vulnerable? I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

With great respect to the noble Lord, I have tried to follow, but I do not understand why either of the amendments is necessary or appropriate. After all, it is a receding industry in which redundancy is inevitable and accepted as collieries end their useful and economic working life. The present redundancy regime with its special redundancy support is an effective inducement to retire and, so far as I am aware, works well.

The object of the clause as a whole seems to be to extend by three years (until March 1996) the period over which the Government may pay restructuring grants. Surely the amendments would spread the special support for all employees for all time, and that would be somewhat unrealistic.

The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, talked of abuse, blackmail or manipulation; but is there any realistic fear that there would be victimisation on any scale to warrant the introduction of the amendments and so impose an unacceptable fetter on the British Coal Corporation? I hope that my noble friend the Minister will not accept the amendments.

Lord Dean of Beswick

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, said that the provision for miners when they retire was satisfactory and sufficient. We are not talking just about miners who are retiring. Some miners are very young. It is not a question of retiring and having a nice golden handshake. Serious anxieties were expressed in another place by MPs representing miners. They produced chapter and verse. I could read out what they said, but I do not see any point in doing so. They proved that the BCC has closed some pits and has gone outside the normally accepted code of conduct and procedure.

If the noble Lord were to read col. 10 of the proceedings of another place on 3rd December 1991 he would see chapter and verse relating to the pits where that happened. The amendment is not a spurious one to deal with circumstances that might not occur. It is a realistic amendment to try to obviate abuses that have occurred in the past. As Hansard of another place records, when miners appealed against BCC acting outside the procedure, they won their case.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I accept that the noble Lord knows much more than I about the industry. All I say, with the utmost respect, is that as yet—I have listened with care—he has not made out a compelling case for imposing this fetter upon the BCC.

Lord Ezra

I fully support the sentiments lying behind the two amendments. I hope that the Minister will tell us that they are unnecessary because neither of the situations arise. I must say that in my time in the coal industry—if I may refer to that—there would never have been a case such as that mentioned in Amendment No. 1 where redundancy terms would discriminate as between those who supported a closure and those who did not. I hope that we shall receive a categorical assurance that that will never happen. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, would be satisfied with such an assurance.

Equally, in the case of redundancy terms offered at any stage during the procedure involved in the closure of a colliery, it would have been inconceivable for us to have gone back on such an offer. I assume that the people who now run BCC are honourable people who are doing so to the best of their endeavours and who would take up the same position. I hope we shall receive a similar assurance on that point from the Minister.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Like the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, I should be satisfied if we could have such an assurance. Many of us are worried about the problem because the coal industry is not, and has not been since the miners' strike, run in the way that it was run under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. There have undoubtedly been instances of intimidation since the miners' strike. There is no doubt that miners have had their arms twisted. The NUM has had wage settlements imposed upon it and members of the union have had wage settlements imposed on them, whether they liked it or not.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that there are legitimate reasons for being fearful about what might happen if people decide that they wish to fight to keep their coal mine open. The amendments are designed to deal with those fears. However, as I said, I join the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, in asking the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, to give us the assurances we wish. I am sure that if we receive them, my noble friend on the Front Bench will consider not proceeding with the amendments.

4 p.m.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

British Coal's redundancy terms are a matter for the corporation and not for legislation. I can nevertheless assure noble Lords that redundancy terms are calculated on the basis of three factors only: the worker's average earnings before redundancy, his overall length of service in the industry and his age on redundancy. Terms are not varied if a worker or the colliery has resisted closure. In saying that, I believe that I am giving the categorical assurance asked for by the noble Lords, Lord Dean, Lord Ezra and Lord Stoddart of Swindon. It is unnecessary for the Government to seek to intervene in this area.

Questions were raised about the procedures of the independent review body. That body is part of the modified colliery review procedure which was agreed by British Coal with the trade unions concerned. If the parties to the review procedure find that modification of the procedure is desirable, that is entirely a matter for them. The Government play no part in the review procedure and it would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment on that. The modified colliery review procedure provides the coal industry with the most comprehensive consultation process of any major industry. However, the final decision on the future of an individual pit must remain a matter for the management of British Coal.

With his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Dean, suggests that we are anticipating closures. I can tell him that provision has been made in the department's main estimate for a restructuring grant expenditure of £300 million during 1991–92. The number of redundancies that will occur and the average cost in grant expenditure are subject, as in the past, to considerable uncertainty. However, £300 million is estimated to be sufficient to cover about 6,500 industrial redundancies after allowing for the grant expenditure in 1991–92 in respect of 2,000 industrial workers who left the industry at the end of 1990–91 but did not attract restructuring grant until after the start of the new financial year. There is no anticipation in these assumptions.

I believe that Members of the Committee recognise that British Coal's redundancy terms are generous. They provide for a lump sum of up to £27,000, depending on the length of service and earnings and further lump sums of up to £10,000 depending on age. This takes the maximum payment to £37,000.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway was right to say that the existing system works well. Although there are disappointments in the industry, it is also right to recognise properly that the industry is contracting and to manage it accordingly. With those assurances and that explanation, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

The assurances appear to meet the case. However, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord about one possible scenario. Miners may go on strike to protect their pit from closure. During that strike they are sacked by the coal board. What would their position be? Would they still qualify for the redundancy payments?

Lord Cavendish of Furness

I need to check the detailed law about that and whether or not the strike was legal.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

What would the position be if it were legal?

Lord Cavendish of Furness

I shall have to check on the position. One other question which I did not answer arose out of the first debate. I was asked for an assurance that redundancy payments would not be used as blackmail. I covered that in general: there is no question of redundancy payments being abused by British Coal and I refute suggestions to the contrary. Redundancy terms will only be offered where the rundown of employment opportunities makes them essential.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Perhaps I may help the noble Lord. I believe that the position is that if miners are on strike and are dismissed while on strike, they would not qualify for the redundancy. That was the position two years ago, it may have changed since then.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

I am grateful to my noble friend. I have got no further and perhaps to clear the matter up I should write to noble Lords.

Lord Dean of Beswick

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. Naturally we shall await his written reply on the point raised by my noble friend Lord Stoddart. I do not always agree with the views of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway on trade union matters, but I nevertheless respect them. I am grateful to him for his remarks, but two specific cases were mentioned in proceedings in another place. The collieries were named, dates were given by the chief Opposition spokesman on the Bill. De facto, the action taken by British Coal was only reversed after intervention following the appeals review procedure.

The Minister indicated to my noble friend Lord Stoddart and the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that he would inform us of the redundancy situation under the law regarding a miner or a group of miners on official strike. If a miner can be dismissed under those circumstances, it leaves much to be desired as regards fair trade union legislation. It would place a weapon in the hands of the employer which, if he wished to use it viciously, could be so used in almost every case where a group of workers decided to stand and fight.

However, in view of the Minister's answer and his undertaking that he will let my colleagues and myself know the full position under the law, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Lord Dean of Beswick moved Amendment No. 3: Page 1, line 15, at end insert: ("( ) After subsection (10) there shall be insertedx2014; ( ) Before making an order under subsection (10) above for extending the duration of and increasing the limit on grants the Secretary of State shall prepare and submit to Parliament a report setting out his Department's estimate of the likely calls upon the grant in the forthcoming financial year, specifying in each case how the grant is likely to be spent." ").

The noble Lord said: I believe that we are taking Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 together. They would require the Secretary of State to: prepare and submit to Parliament a report setting out", what the money from the restructuring fund had been spent on in the preceding year and a report detailing estimates of what the money would be spent on in the forthcoming year. The amendments call for information about what has happened and what is predicted.

The amendments provide an opportunity to debate the Government's calculations underlying the restructuring fund. Naturally, we support the maximum financial provision for unemployed miners and their families. But we seek further information about the Government's plans. The Bill proposes to increase funds available for restructuring and redundancies from £1.5 billion to £3 billion. It extends the period over which funds may be paid to cover the years up to 1995–96.

Through these amendments we seek to discover how much of the money so far set aside has been spent on redundancy payments, how much on welfare payments, how much on concessionary coal, and so on. It is important too that the Government should reveal their plans for the future and how much will be spent on redundancies. The extra sums proposed in the Bill have not been plucked out of the air, the Government must have made an estimate of future costs. In our opinion, £1.5 billion will fund at least another 30,000 job losses and between 30 and 40 further pit closures. This is in line with the figures predicted in the Rothschild Report. It does not seem likely that that is mere coincidence. This Bill asks Parliament to grant more money to British Coal. It does not seem an unreasonable request that Parliament should be kept informed as to how such sums of money will be spent. I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I hope I may respectfully ask the noble Lord a question. Does not Amendment No. 4 seek to import a costing obligation in perpetuity in the process of restructuring the industry? If that is so, is that not unacceptable? As regards Amendment No. 3, is it not right that, broadly speaking, the information sought is available in the quarterly report? Is there not some difficulty in producing figures based upon an assumption? In the circumstances would that not only be improper but also somewhat improvident? How on earth could one achieve any satisfactory accuracy? With respect, I suggest that these amendments, in the way they have been drafted, do not appear to have a compelling justification.

Lord Dean of Beswick

Is the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, saying that because matters are kept under review in perpetuity nothing can go wrong? There are thousands of people in this country who have just lost their pension rights as a result of procedures being carried on in perpetuity and as a result of the failure to carry out periodical checks. I believe the views of people who are involved in this industry need to be considered seriously. They want periodical checks to be undertaken. What is more, I want periodical checks to be carried out as a taxpayer funding this measure. I do not think it is unreasonable to ask for the safeguards contained in Amendment No. 1. I do not accept that people always behave well in perpetuity. Periodical checks need to be made to ensure things are in order and that moneys are being used for the right purposes all the time. If something is wrong, the longer that position is allowed to continue, the greater the likelihood that money may be used in an improper fashion. I am convinced that these amendments are valid and are worthy of consideration by this Chamber.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

I appreciate the noble Lord's interest in restructuring grant estimates and expenditure. He will know that my honourable friend Mr. Heathcoat-Amory in another place acknowledged that perhaps more detailed breakdowns might be useful. Very large sums of public money are involved. The noble Lord may not be aware that the department's Supply Estimates which are presented to Parliament in March each year already provide the department's estimate of restructuring grant expenditure in the forthcoming year as well as provisional figures for expenditure in the current year and audited figures for the previous year.

It may be helpful if I provide the breakdown of figures the noble Lord asked for. The figures illustrate how the £225.9 million restructuring grant was spent by British Coal in 1990–91. For redundancy and early retirement £199.4 million was allocated. Under the heading of changes of work and place of employment £15.4 million was allocated. For concessionary fuel £1.3 million was allocated. For retraining £2.9 million was allocated and for new employment £6.9 million. I believe those are the figures the noble Lord asked for.

I can see no need to require the Secretary of State in this Bill to do what he already does in the Supply Estimates for the purposes of obtaining parliamentary authority for departmental expenditure. He may also wish to note that the department's latest report on expenditure, which was published last week, gives details of restructuring grant payments made in 1990–91. Those are the figures I have just mentioned.

The department therefore already makes available a great deal of information on actual expenditure. Future restructuring grant payments are difficult to predict because they will depend on the coal industry's progress in streamlining its operations, improving productivity and winning market share. It will be misleading to provide more detailed forecasts than those already made available. I hope I have been helpful and that in future we may be able to supply more information of the kind the noble Lord needs. With that assurance, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendments.

Lord Dean of Beswick

I am grateful to the Minister for the detailed figures he provided. However, if we had not debated this amendment today those figures would not have been provided in the Chamber. I do not know whether they have been provided in another place. However, as I have said, I am grateful to the Minister for providing the figures today. I am not, however, convinced that what the Minister claims are safeguards are total safeguards. Nevertheless in view of the thorough reply the Minister has given, I shall respond to his request and withdraw the amendment. I shall reconsider the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 4 not moved.]

4.15 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick moved Amendment No. 5: Page 1, line 15, at end insert: ("( ) In Schedule 2, paragraph 6, line 1, after "new" there shall be inserted "or continuing").

The noble Lord said: This is a probing amendment. I hope the Minister will say what the Government's views are on it. The amendment seeks to discover whether eligible expenditure under Schedule 2 to the Coal Industry Act 1987 covers expenditure to secure continuing employment of people in mining areas or whether the money is payable only if there are new jobs. We hope that expenditure is allowed under the existing legislation to allow continuing employment in existing mining areas. However, we understand from the proceedings in Committee in another place that that is not the Government's interpretation of the legislation.

Will the Minister explain why the Government might be opposed to allowing money to be spent on supporting the existing infrastructure? The example was given in Committee in another place of the possibility of investing money in new small mines in the anthracite coalfields of South Wales when the larger anthracite coalfields are closed. I hope the Minister can provide some information about that matter. I beg to move.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

I believe the noble Lord, Lord Dean, was correct in his understanding of the debate that took place in another place. I hope I may clarify the position.

Head 6 of Schedule 2 to the 1987 Act already permits British Coal Enterprise to support job creation in both new and existing companies as long as new employment is involved. So there already is an element of support for continuing activity in the aid provided under Head 6. It would, however, be wholly wrong to use restructuring grant as a means for supporting activities that do not involve the promotion of new jobs. It would also be wholly wrong to use restructuring grant to support activities that do not show good prospects of being viable.

There can be no question of using restructuring grant as a means for subsidising continuing loss making production by British Coal. This would run counter to the purpose of restructuring grant, which is to assist British Coal in putting its operations onto a viable basis, reducing capacity and raising productivity as necessary. British Coal has in the past received production subsidies through deficit and later deficiency grants. That form of assistance has become unnecessary because the corporation's finances are now back onto a profitable footing. That represents a considerable achievement. This Government do not intend to re-introduce production subsidies. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Dean, will be satisfied with that clarification.

Lord Desai

Before the noble Lord sits down I hope I may intervene. I am speaking as a comparative stranger to this matter. There have been reports in the newspapers that the German Government give subsidies to their coal industry and that it may be possible for this Government to change their mind about the position here. If that is the case, continuing jobs which are in existence may become possible rather than subsidising new jobs. Is that area covered by the clause?

Lord Cavendish of Furness

If I understand the question of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, the answer is that it is likely that it will be the Germans who will change their practice under other legislation.

Lord Dean of Beswick

I think that my noble friend Lord Desai was referring to a matter which I raised in your Lordships' House a couple of weeks ago when an article appeared in a newspaper criticising the EC for allowing the German Government to pay a special subsidy to make their own mines competitive. German mines are by no means as competitive as mines owned by British Coal. I do not want to go into matters which are wide of the amendment because that would not be fair, but I should like to deal with the question which my colleague asked.

We asked why, if rules are imposed on us which require us to operate full market practices and to produce coal in a competitive manner, the Germans are allowed the privilege of a special subsidy to make their mines competitive. We should be fighting for that subsidy to the German coalfields to be removed. If that happened it might not be necessary for our own coal industry to be reduced to the extent that the Government envisage. That was the point at issue on the earlier occasion. However, it is not related to the amendment.

Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister will be tolerant if I broaden the discussion a little in relation to grants for redevelopment, business and jobs in mining areas. I refer mainly to the large areas where coalfields have been closed and removed from the face of the earth. That is a sore point. Those areas are able to receive sums of money from the European Commissioners for the purposes of redevelopment. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, is present and he will know more about the subject than I do. Unfortunately, as I understand it, if that money is forthcoming from the EC an equivalent amount is withdrawn by the Government in another way. In other words, those areas lose money from the Government if they receive funds from Europe. Perhaps the Minister will say a few words on that point?

That is the position at present as I understand it. If the Barnsley area, for example, received £15 million from the EC to redevelop the area which had been devastated by pit closures it would lose £15 million from our own Government. That seems an odd way of encouraging people to redevelop their areas. Can the Minister spend a couple of minutes on that point?

Lord Campbell of Alloway

The situation is unnecessarily complicated by reference to Community law in this context. For example, German employment laws work entirely differently from the way in which our employment laws work. One problem is that if one imports the concept of continuing employment into English employment law that would create a new concept. Secondly, there is the question of what it means. All sorts of problems would be created which are beyond the scope of the immediate problem. That is because paragraph 6 of the schedule reads: Expenditure on the promotion of new employment". That is perfectly clear. However, if one adds the words "and continuing employment" I am not entirely sure what that means. With the greatest respect, I do not suppose that the noble Lord knows either, and Professor Wedderburn is not present.

Lord Dean of Beswick

That is why I said that it was a probing amendment.

Lord Cockfield

I merely wish to be helpful in the case of a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. The simple truth of the matter is that the substantial subsidies given by the German Government to the German coal industry are prima facie illegal under the provisions of the Treaty of Rome relating to state aids. Over the years the Commission has exerted pressure on the German Government in exactly the same way as it has exerted pressure on the British Government to reduce such state aids and ultimately to eliminate them. The right answer to the question is that where somebody is behaving in a way which is not defensible we should endeavour to persuade them to toe the line rather than copy what they do.

On the other point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, relating to the question of grants to particular areas, including the coal-mining areas, there is a difference of opinion at present between the Government and the European Commission on a point of law. One would hope to see that difference resolved in a satisfactory manner, but possibly my noble friend on the Front Bench can give us the latest news, if any, on that particular point.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

When the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, put the question of German subsidies at the end of Question Time I am afraid that I gave him rather short shrift and said that there was no cause to ape the Germans. My noble friend has put it more politely and rather better. Under the general trend in Europe the German practice is wrong and is not something that we would wish to follow. As I have said on other occasions, we support the European Community's so-called RECHAR programme, which should bring real benefit to the coalfield areas. Our position is that we regret that Commissioner Millan feels unable to approve our programme. We hope that the problem will be resolved in the near future. The money derives from money which we contributed to the European Commission in the first place and we feel that we are entitled to get it back. British Coal Enterprise will be seeking to take advantage of the RECHAR programme to bolster its job creation efforts.

As the noble Lord, Lord Dean, acknowledged, that issue is rather wide of the amendment, but I hope that that reply satisfies the noble Lord.

Lord Dean of Beswick

When I moved the amendment I said that it was a probing amendment. Perhaps it probed a little further than the subject on the Marshalled List. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, for putting us right on what is happening. It is obvious from what he said that British Coal is not competing on a level playing field with Germany. We ought not to forget that and should try to put the matter right and enable British Coal to compete on an equal basis with its competitors.

The probing amendment has worked. We have been given a certain amount of information on a variety of issues. I shall read in Hansard what has been said and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Repeal of Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908]:

Lord Dean of Beswick moved Amendment No. 6: Page 1, line 17, at end insert ("except for privately licensed mines as defined under the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946").

The noble Lord said: The amendment attempts to protect those working in the private mining sector against the possibility of relaxed safety controls. The Bill repeals the 1908 Act, which limits the number of hours which may be worked under ground. The Government have argued that the 1908 Act would not be repealed unless or until the European Community directive on working time has been brought into force. The inconsistencies in that argument can perhaps be developed later. Here we are concerned to protect the safety of those working in private licensed mines, whose safety record is not as good as that of British Coal.

Information from the NUM shows that the fatal accident rate in the UK private mining sector is 8.8 times higher than in British Coal mines. We are concerned that the repeal of the 1908 Act will leave private mines without protection because the EC directive, even if accepted by the Government, will not apply to private mines. Different working practices apply in the private sector. Workers in private mines are vulnerable to health and safety problems and require protection in legislation. Perhaps the Minister will clarify how the proposed changes will affect private mines and how their safety will or can be improved. I beg to move.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I am at some disadvantage. The noble Lord said that the accident rate, so to speak, was eight times greater. I understood that there was not much between private coal mines and the Coal Board as regards the accident record rate. I do not feel that I can contribute anything to the discussion because, if the noble Lord is right about the figures, there is a problem.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My information and my brief come from research people who are usually totally reliable. I quoted the figure given by them. It possibly requires rechecking. However, I suspect that unless it is a typing error it is probably the correct figure.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

Perhaps we could leave the matter of the figures for a moment. The noble Lord is absolutely right to be concerned for the workers in coal mines, which include licensed mines. However, it would be wrong to exclude private licensed mines from the coverage of the Bill. The 1908 Act is obsolete in respect of both public and private sector mines.

The only justifiable difference for private sector mines would be over the timing of the commencement of the repeal. If the EC directive is agreed, as we believe it will be, repeal of the 1908 Act will not be implemented for private sector mines until the directive is given force in the United Kingdom through implementing legislation.

So far as concerns safety, the UK legislative system on protection of health and safety at work applies equally to private and public sector mines. The repeal of the 1908 Act will in no way weaken that system of regulation because the Act is not part of the system and is obsolete.

Turning to the statistics, the latest statistics from the Health and Safety Executive show that accident rates in private sector and British Coal mines were at virtually the same level in 1990–91. That is not to say that they have not had a worse history. There has been a welcome reduction in accidents at licensed mines over the past four years. To back that with figures, because some have been mentioned, in private mines in 1987–88 there were three fatalities compared with nine in British Coal mines, which is considerable given the very much smaller size of the private sector. In 1991–92 to date there has been one fatality in a private mine and tragically as of today seven in British Coal. A useful comparison might be made with fatal accidents and major injuries. The HSE 1990–91 annual report shows the following figures for fatal accidents and major injuries per 1,000 employed. In 1987–88 in licensed mines there were 24 per thousand employed compared with 7.1 in British Coal. In 1990–91 there were 8.6 per thousand in licensed mines compared with 8.4 in British Coal.

Let me give one final illustration. It may help the Committee to know that fatalities in British collieries have been reduced from four per million manshifts in the 1930s to one per 2 million manshifts last year. Those figures reflect improved safety consciousness in licensed mines and increased inspection by the HSE. The latest accident figures, some of which I have given, are available from the HSE's 1990–91 annual report which was published last December.

I have endeavoured to show that the amendment would not be helpful or give any additional protection to workers in licensed mines. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw it.

Lord Ezra

I should be grateful if the noble Lord would clarify an issue about which I am not very sure. At Second Reading on 31st January he said: If the [EC] directive is implemented, it would apply immediately to British Coal as a public sector body".—[Official Report, 31/1/92; col. 1556] Can he clarify how it would apply to the private mines? Would that come at a later stage?

Lord Cavendish of Furness

Yes, it would come following the directive. There would have to be secondary legislation coming before both Houses of Parliament to enact that directive.

Lord Ezra

Would that therefore mean that while the 1908 Act would cease to apply to British Coal, it would continue for that interim period to apply to private mines?

Lord Cavendish of Furness

The noble Lord is right.

Lord Dean of Beswick

I am grateful to the Minister for having given us the most up-to-date figures available. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Dean of Beswick moved Amendment No. 7: Page 1, line 17, at end insert ("following the application of collective agreements concluded between the two sides of industry which are more favourable to the protection of the safety and health of the workforce.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment goes to the heart of Clause 2. The Government have decided to make this repeal but they have done so without any consultation with the workforce or supervisory staff; nor have they left the issue to be decided by the Health and Safety Executive. The Government propose instead to rely on the provisions of the EC working time directive. However, we fear that that may weaken the current safety requirements. The EC directive is a minimal approach to working hours in all industries and explicitly allows the application of tougher and specific national laws. Mines safety has special needs which should be recognised in legislation. We oppose the repeal of the 1908 Act.

In 1986 the right honourable Peter Walker was asked by the Select Committee on Energy in another place about the need to amend the 1908 Act to allow longer shifts. He said: If discussions took place along those lines I presume those discussions would, first of all, take place between the Coal Board and the unions to discuss what effect it would have … there would have to be discussions in the first place with the Health and Safety Commission because the safety aspects of it would be of paramount importance".

However, since 1986 the Government seem to have had a change of heart. It would appear that they are now prepared to ride roughshod over the views of the workforce and its unions. The decision also goes against the advice of the 1988 MMC inquiry which recommended, due to the safety implications, that British Coal should consult with the trade unions preparatory to making further representations to the Government on this matter. No such consultation has taken place.

The amendment suggests that safety should be a matter for collective bargaining. There should have been discussions before the repeal was proposed. There should be discussions now about what will replace the provisions to ensure that safety remains of paramount importance, as it has done for so long. I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I agree with the aspirations in principle of the noble Lord, Lord Dean. I take the view that as regards safety there is a case not only for legislation but also for collective agreements. Both have a constructive and useful part to play. The status of collective agreements is already under discussion in terms of general application as regards not only legal efficacy but also the recognition of trade unions in particular in the context of safety and health measures.

This is a very important matter. It has already attracted the interest of this Chamber in the context of the shore oil rig situation and the construction industry and in relation to other matters which it would not be right to take time to mention. It is an important subject worthy of sustained and serious debate in a general context. However, perhaps I part company with the noble Lord in that I do not believe that it is right to deal with the matter piecemeal today and try to import provisions into the coal industry in a Bill such as this. The matter is far too important. It requires serious debate in this Chamber, perhaps on a Bill of general application.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I find it almost inconceivable that there have been no consultations about the matter. Safety is paramount in the coal industry and in every other industry. Before I entered Parliament I worked in the electricity supply industry. That too can be a difficult and dangerous industry. I cannot conceive of any circumstance in which the Central Electricity Generating Board and the area boards would not have consulted their staff on matters such as those that we are discussing today.

There is no doubt that hours of work impinge on safety. They are bound to do so. In an era in which the coal industry is being pressurised reach higher productivity targets, and once attained to achieve even better productivity, it is absolutely essential that the trade unions and the workers' representatives at all levels are properly consulted and that reasonable agreements are reached.

If the Minister cannot give assurances about the matter, the Committee must consider seriously whether to tell British Coal that it must embark on consultations, in particular when the safety of workers is involved. Today we received a poignant reminder of the necessity for eternal vigilance in the coal mines. That vigilance cannot be relaxed at any time because always a serious accident is waiting to happen.

I believe that it is the view of Members on all sides of the Committee that proper negotiations should take place between British Coal and its employees and that proper agreements should be reached.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Does the noble Lord agree that there are problems in that we have not yet resolved the recognition procedures for the offshore oil industry or the construction industry? We cannot go bull-headed into the matter because I suggest to the noble Lord that so much has yet to be done to pave the way.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

That is right. I would not disagree with the noble Lord.

Lord Ezra

I have considerable sympathy for the intention lying behind the amendment. While it must be accepted that the 1908 Act is out of date and that a great deal has happened in the technology of mining, the question of what is to replace the Act is of prime importance to the people working in the industry. That is not made clear in the Bill.

The mining industry has a great tradition of those involved working together on all matters affecting the methods of work, to which is related the question of safety. It can be argued that the hours laid down in the 1908 Act are no longer valid because of the changes in technology and that different hours can safely be worked. Having accepted that argument, it is right that before any changes are made there should be collective agreements which endorse that.

That is the way in which work is done in the mining industry. I used to have countless meetings on safety and conditions at work. I found it relatively easy to reach agreement because there was a common motivation. Management and workers were equally convinced of the need to work the mines not only efficiently but safely. If the Minister does not accept the amendment as it stands I hope he will say that it is British Coal's firm intention to discuss those issues with the workforce and to reach agreement on the lines indicated in the amendment.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

Not for the first time today we are reminded of the vital importance of vigilance in the coal mines. I hope that Members of the Committee will accept the Government's utter commitment to making the safety of people working in the coal mines an absolute priority. However, I believe that we are entering dangerous waters. Members of the Committee opposite must decide whether they want the regulation of health and safety at work to be a matter for government or for collective bargaining.

The Government believe that the regulation of health and safety is a matter for government. There is a legislative system of health and safety protection for mineworkers in place in the UK. The 1908 Act does not form part of that legislative structure. The principal statutes relevant to health and safety are the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 and the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. There are also numerous important subsidiary measures relating to specific aspects of safety in mines. That system has been strengthened progressively throughout the years and there is no question of it being weakened. Safety for mineworkers is and will remain paramount. This Government will not take any action which threatens the safety of mineworkers.

The noble Lord, Lord Dean, asked about the 1986 assurance on consultation. The reason for providing for the repeal of the 1908 Act well in advance of the implementation of the proposed EC directive is precisely to permit adequate time for consultation and negotiation on the new working arrangements between British Coal and the mining unions. As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, it would be inconceivable that that should not happen. We accept that collective agreements have an important role to play. Under the UK system of statutory regulation of health and safety the employers will have to pay due regard to health and safety when concluding new working agreements. The HSC can take action if health and safety are put at risk.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, has valuable experience of the energy supply industry. Although I can give no better comparison from my own experience, I am advised that there are interesting analyses of statistics relating to accidents in coal mines. Statistics analysed by length-of-shift working have been prepared by British Coal and, curiously enough, they do not show a rise at the end of a normal shift. Accident rates were found to be highest towards the middle of the shift rather than at the beginning or at the end. That is not to say that it will be acceptable for British Coal or for some future private owner to impose longer shifts.

I hope that I have demonstrated that the 1908 Act has no standing in the question of health and safety at work. I hope that I have been able to reassure Members of the Committee on that matter.

Lord Dean of Beswick

I am grateful to the noble Lord for having taken part in this debate because it is a very important one and I appreciate the support in a general sense from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. I am sure that many of your Lordships will recall that in the not-too-distant past we have had debates on safety involving a variety of places. I myself initiated a debate about two years ago on the Channel Tunnel and also on Piper Alpha. Everywhere I went visiting sites I found the utmost co-operation among the shop stewards, the men on the site and the management, because in a dangerous situation nothing must be left to chance if you are to maintain maximum safety all the time. It is absolutely essential that the people on the site should be involved from the start, but it seems to me the Minister was saying that the Government have taken a decision to alter the rules of the game in this Bill. They will consult with the people who are affected by the proposed changes in the rules and decide what should be put into legislation.

My argument is the same as that of the people who are concerned with this: consultation should have taken place before there was any thought of there no longer being recourse to the previous Act. There are one or two amendments later that will deal with the question of a variety of—

Lord Cavendish of Furness

I wonder whether the noble Lord would give way. He has spoken of the rules of the game. But the whole essence of this debate is that the rules of the game are completely discredited, so there is no question of changing the rules. They do not apply and have not applied for some time. They are putting at risk management and miners alike because people are not observing these outmoded and redundant rules.

In a sense I would ask the noble Lord not to suggest that the Government are doing anything disingenuous here because, if anything, the Bill is doing damage. It is in a way placing miners and management outside the law. But having said that, we are bringing in something precisely because, as I said, we want to give the management and the unions time for consultation. I think I am right—indeed I am sure I am right—in saying that it is not open to British Coal to change any working arrangements without giving at least six months' notice.

Lord Dean of Beswick

Is it not a fact that change for change's sake is sometimes a bad thing? In reply to an amendment I moved a short time ago the Minister gave us figures on the safety record of British Coal. I think—I believe the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, also confirmed this—that it is possibly the safest mining industry in the world, at any rate in this particular type of mining. It would seem strange to move away from that situation without the fullest consultation right from the start.

I believe the Minister is sincere in what he says and that the Government are also sincere. But my point is that in a dangerous industry you have to take the workforce with you the whole of the way. At the end of the day they are the people who will be on the site and will see that the safety rules and codes of conduct operate. They know that if anything goes wrong it will be themselves or a colleague who may suffer death or injury.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

May I ask the noble Lord whether it is right that regarding the rules of the game the Act of 1908 is in fact a dead duck except for one thing; that is, I believe, where it refers to when overtime starts? Is it not a fact that in all other respects it does not affect safety at all? Safety is dealt with in the Mines and Quarries Act and other legislation. Therefore, the rules of the game as regards safety at the moment are covered by a situation other than the Act of 1908. Is that not right?

Lord Dean of Beswick

We may be going down a different road. The noble Lord has just referred to working hours and so on, but I received a document this morning from one of the officers of British Coal making a case for doing what the Government have suggested. However, with my history of engineering and factory working I did not feel in any way convinced. I am not a miner, although I have been down mines. It is only the people at the sharp end who fully understand the problems. There are proposals in this document which I received this morning referring to a similar working week but truncated into fewer shifts.

Anyone who has been involved in trade union law and workshop practice of any kind will know that a mine is probably the most dangerous workshop there is, even with the present safety measures. Every report that has been issued shows that longer shift working generally ends in increased accidents. You get to an optimum of about seven to eight hours in a working day and after that a person's performance and vigilance start to deteriorate. That is what is behind a lot of this.

There are all kinds of proposals in the wind: four 10-hour shifts, four 11-hour shifts, five shifts, six shifts and so on. The only way this can be resolved is by getting the representatives of the workers and the workers themselves involved. After all, all pits are not the same. I am sure the noble Lord would understand that some of them are quite different and they vary in complexity. It is sad that what appears to have taken place is to sour the workforce who are affected by the legislation.

However, I am grateful to those of your Lordships who have made a contribution to this debate. It is a very important one indeed bearing in mind what was said at the commencement of formal business. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment. We shall look at this further and may decide to come back to the subject later.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 8: Page 1, line 17, at end insert ("after alternative measures specific to the mining industry have been laid before Parliament and approved.").

The noble Lord said: I beg leave to move this amendment following the concern I expressed at Second Reading about what was to follow the repeal of the 1908 Act. The noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, referred to the fact that his right honourable friend the Secretary of State had said in another place that he would not implement the repeal of the 1908 Act until either the EC directive on working time comes into force or, if agreement is not reached on the directive, an alternative United Kingdom measure is introduced.

My concern is twofold. First, having looked at the draft EC directive, I must say that I do not believe it is entirely relevant to underground mining operations. It deals with working conditions everywhere in industry. Indeed, I have heard from British Coal that it too has reservations, particularly in regard to what is said about night working. That is reservation number one.

Reservation number two is that, if the directive does not materialise and the Secretary of State has to make his own decisions, then they will be made and will replace the 1908 Act. But I feel that in either event these matters should come back to the House and we should have the opportunity of debating this. Otherwise, we are left in a situation in which, once this Bill leaves us, we have agreed to the abolition of the 1908 Act and have left it entirely to chance, as I see it, as to whether the EC directive (which may or may not be amended between now and then) or something that has yet to be devised by the Secretary of State for Energy is put in its place. I do not think that that is a satisfactory arrangement.

Whether the wording that I have proposed is appropriate, or whether the Minister can give some assurance that these matters will come back again to the House so that at least we are aware of what is going on, I do not know. I shall certainly not insist on my amendment if the Minister can explain how, under the existing procedures, we can come back to this matter so that we can know what is proposed to take the place of the 1908 Act and express our views on that. I beg to move.

5 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Again I share in principle the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. Truly I am not trying to be a difficult, fine print lawyer, but there are difficulties about this amendment. What are these specific measures? Ought they not to be identified? I do not think that any government could accept the amendment in this form. But that does not mean that this is not an amendment of the greatest possible import. If some assurances can be given that satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and the Committee, the amendment will have served an important purpose.

I should have thought that it is common ground that we all agree that the 1908 Act should be repealed. The noble Lord nods his head. I am grateful. I know so little about this industry, but it seems right that it should be repealed. If it is to be repealed, and if the directive applies to the mining industry, then there must be time for both sides of industry to consider in consultation how it is to work. At all events, there will be some form of directive which will apply to the mining industry, and which would have to be the subject matter of consultation.

However, as the question of safety is governed by the Mines and Quarries Act and other primary legislation, is it not preferable to concentrate on an assurance that perhaps could be given by my noble friend the Minister that these matters will be kept under vigilant review especially when, as we have been reminded today, one really cannot concentrate on any particular aspect? For example, long hours. Are long hours the evil if in fact there are properly organised rest periods? Are there not certain mines where it takes a long time to get to the work face, where a regime would be totally different from the regime in another type of mine?

As it is common ground that the 1908 Act should go, I suggest that it should go, with the issue of how the matter is dealt with left to the good intentions of any government.

Lord Dean of Beswick

I support the amendment. It is a probing amendment asking what are the Government's intentions. It would be a foolish person who discounted the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, on the question of safety in mines and all that that entails, bearing in mind that he was chairman of the coal board in its halcyon days when it was effectively run with a fellow Lancastrian of mine as president of the union, Lord Gormley, who, had he carried on, I am sure would not have pressed the self-destruct button as somebody else did.

Having said that, I think the Minister would be wise to take seriously the reservations that have been made by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, about what the Government really mean, and also the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. We, in principle, support the amendment and the objectives that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, is trying to achieve.

Lord Rochester

I should like to say a few words in support of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Ezra. It is my understanding that the working time directive comes under the Treaty of Rome as amended by the Single European Act, and it is open therefore to the Government to veto it.

Lord Cavendish of Furness


Lord Rochester

If I am wrong no doubt the Minister will correct me, but that is my understanding. If that were the case, then we should find ourselves in a most unsatisfactory position. Quite understandably in my view, a number of employers are urging the Government to exercise their veto over the directive. For instance, in the case of the chemical industry, of which I have some experience, the provisions in the directive relating to night work and shift work would have a deleterious effect on that industry, dependent, as it is, so very much on continuous process work.

If my understanding is correct, therefore, we shall possibly be left with a position where the directive does not operate in our case and where we have committed ourselves, if this clause goes through, to a situation where the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908 ceases to have effect. There will then be no regulations governing the operation of working hours in the coal industry. If that is so—and I am open to correction—then it is a serious situation.

Lord Ezra

I should like to take up a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, in his important intervention. He made the valid point that conditions in pits differ, and that you must leave it to the people on the spot. If the Government were proposing to repeal the 1908 Act because of the fact that safety is fully catered for, that conditions differ in pits and therefore different working hours ought to apply, and that there would be nothing to replace it, that would be an issue that we could debate. But that is not the issue that is put before us.

We are being told that the 1908 Act is to be replaced either by a directive—which, as presently drafted, in my opinion is not satisfactory—or by some other measures that the Secretary of State will prepare and impose. My contention is that if that is the case then, whether the directive or measures to be prepared by the Secretary of State are to replace the Act, we ought to have an opportunity to look at them and decide whether we think they are suitable or not.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I understood my noble friend the Minister to say—I may have got it wrong —that if the directive were to be implemented it would be brought before the House for domestic legislation. It would be implemented by some statutory instrument or primary legislation. I may be wrong, but I understood that that was the position.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

As has been said, the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has a vast experience of the coal industry and, as Chairman of the National Coal Board, had direct experience of the 1908 Act in practice. Perhaps I can clear up one specific matter. I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, that the UK cannot effectively veto the directive. There is qualified majority voting under the Treaty of Rome legislation. Nor would the directive be affected by anything agreed or said at Maastricht.

Lord Rochester

With the leave of the Committee perhaps I can interrupt the noble Lord. It is my understanding that it would not be dealt with by qualified majority voting but would require unanimity.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

Obviously our advice is at odds. Luckily there is time to sort the matter out. I shall look into it and ascertain which of us is right. I shall gracefully give way if the noble Lord is correct.

The amendment proposed would require that replacement UK legislation on working time, specific to the coal industry, should be in place before the repeal of the 1908 Act is implemented. As I understand the noble Lord's position he is not questioning the need for the 1908 Act to be repealed. He accepts, I believe, that the 1908 Act is outdated and widely ignored. He agrees that it is not satisfactory to have on the statute book law which is being broken daily by both miners and management—because it binds on both. He also appears to accept that the present day legislative provision for the protection of the health and safety of our mineworkers is satisfactory in broad terms.

The noble Lord has a sincere concern for the health and safety of Britain's coal miners, as we all do. He tabled the amendment that we are discussing because he believes that without replacement UK legislation specific to the coal industry the safety and health of miners would be at risk to the demands of mine owners, present and future.

I should like to explain why the Government's proposals will not introduce any such risk. I hope also to persuade the Committee that the amendment will not add anything to the statutory protection of the safety of miners. The most important point that I must make is that the 1908 Act is not part of the legislative system that protects the health and safety of mineworkers. The principal statutes on which our very extensive system of protection is built are the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974—I am sorry to repeat this but it is important to place it on record—and the Mines and Quarries Act 1954. Those Acts and subsidiary legislation under them will be continuing in force. The vital protection that they afford to miners is not to be changed.

I should like to quote from a recent letter from Sir John Cullen written to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy. I have shared the information with the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. Indeed, I should like to take this opportunity to thank him for taking the time to discuss aspects of the Bill. Sir John is chairman of the Health and Safety Commission which oversees the work of the Health and Safety Executive. The executive enforces the health and safety legislation in our mines through the mines inspectorate. Sir John says that the 1908 Act, is not a relevant statutory provision under the Health and Safety at Work Act". He adds that the current Bill's proposals are unlikely to lead to a reduction in standards of health and safety. He finally points to the powers that the executive has under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act to take action if excessive hours are being worked, leading to adverse effects on health and safety in mines. He says that the executive will not hesitate to take action where that is necessary.

In summary, Sir John Cullen has confirmed the Government's view that the 1908 Act is not part of the existing system of statutory protection for the health and safety of miners and that its removal will not affect that protection. Moreover, he says in his letter that the 1908 Act is in any case difficult to enforce. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act provides the Mines Inspectorate with the powers that it needs in order to take action if excessive hours of working threaten health and safety. Those statutory powers are there and will not change. The noble Lord's amendment would not add to the protection of health and safety that the present statutes provide.

I am not clear what view the noble Lord takes of the work of the mines inspectorate; we have not discussed that. The Government's view is that the inspectorate deserves great respect and support in the vital work which it does. Over recent years it has been active in enforcing improved safety standards in the small licensed mines and the accident and fatality statistics have shown much needed improvement in that sector as a result. In British Coal's mines accident and fatalities continue their long-term trend of decline—in spite of today's tragedy—and the mines inspectorate has had no small part in ensuring that outcome. The Committee will have noted that the Health and Safety Commission and Executive and the mines inspectorate are not asking for new UK legislation to replace the 1908 Act. They believe that they have the necessary statutory backing to take action on excessive hours.

The amendment would not add to the protection of the health and safety of mineworkers. With regard to the regulation of working time, the new EC directive will introduce new limits and will guarantee rest periods. That will provide a new framework within which hours of work can be settled by negotiation between employers and trade unions. The Secretary of State for Energy has given an assurance that there will be no gap in the provision of working time legislation and I repeat that assurance today.

I can assure the noble Lord that whether or not the 1908 Act is replaced by the EC directive or by a UK measure, there will be appropriate opportunities for the proposed replacement to be considered by both Houses of Parliament.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, sees a need for legislation on working time that, in contrast to the EC directive, would be specific to the coal mines. It follows that for such legislation to have any point it would have to be more restrictive than the EC directive. It is important that the Committee should be aware that the 48-hour limit on the working week proposed in the EC directive will place a tight limit on underground working in some mines, as the noble Lord is aware. It will be particularly restrictive at mines where miners have long journeys to make underground and where some weekend working is necessary to keep mines in operation. UK legislation which is more restrictive than the EC directive would discriminate against such pits. The EC directive allows just about enough flexibility for the British deep mine industry to operate successfully; and noble Lords will be aware that our mines have to pursue coal developments at increasing distances from the shaft bottoms as they progressively work out their coal reserves.

I have sought to illustrate that the amendment is unnecessary. I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway that it may be defective, but we are not making an issue out of that. However, I venture to suggest that it may be damaging. I have gone to some lengths to explain the Government's view to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. I hope I have given some satisfaction to the noble Lord and to the Committee in general. It is an important issue. Of course, I can make a commitment for my department to keep an open door at any level so that the issue can be further discussed if the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and others are not yet satisfied. Meanwhile, I hope he feels able to withdraw the amendment.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

Before the Minister sits down perhaps I can say that it was kind of him to read the letter from the chairman of the Safety Commission. However, it may save my moving the last two amendments if he can give the date of the letter.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

The letter is from the Health and Safety Commission addressed to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, Mr. John Wakeham, and is dated 7th January 1992.

Lord Dean of Beswick

That means that the letter was received after the Bill had passed through its stages in another place. I do not blame the Minister, but it is a little naughty. It looks as though he has recruited an ally who was not in the dock in another place. I shall withdraw my next two amendments but I can assure the noble Lord that, on the basis of what he has just said, we shall be returning to this subject at a later stage.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

It is entirely proper and there is nothing sinister in my right honourable friend seeking clarification on a point of such importance. I hope that I did not give any impression—

Lord Dean of Beswick

I am sorry, but the contents of that letter are very profound; they are not peripheral to the argument but central to it. That letter was not seen or quoted—it had not been received—when another place was dealing with this Bill. To me that smacks of sharp practice. I shall not be moving my last two amendments tonight but we shall return to them at Report stage.

Lord Ezra

I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, for the time that he gave me to speak to him and his officials about this issue and also for his painstaking reply today. I know that he and everyone else in the Committee agrees that we must be very careful about the conditions of work in the mines which, inevitably, are associated with questions of safety. If mine workers work excessive hours they are at risk. We have been assured that the question of excessive hours is fully catered for by the safety of mines inspectorate. I am prepared to accept that and I pay tribute to its work.

I propose to withdraw my amendment following the assurance given to me by the Minister that we shall have full opportunity for seeing and debating whatever replaces the 1908 Act, whether it be the directive as finally amended and promulgated or provisions made by the Secretary of State. On that understanding, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

Before the noble Lord sits down perhaps I may remove a slightly sour taste which has arisen concerning the letter. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, that the letter was received before the Report stage.

Lord Dean of Beswick

I was going to rise anyway because I believe I went a little over the top. I wish to withdraw the words "sharp practice". However, the matter was dealt with in a way which was misleading. I want to make it absolutely clear that that was not done by the Minister.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Citation, repeals, commencement and extent]:

Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 not moved.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Schedule agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.

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