HL Deb 02 March 1992 vol 536 cc640-8

7.10 p.m.

Report received.

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

[Amendment No. 1 not moved.]

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

Lord Donoughue moved Amendment No. 2: 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: My Lords, Clause 2 repeals the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908 which limited time worked below ground to seven-and-a-half hours. The proposal caused widespread anxiety because the 1908 Act was the foundation stone of the health and safety reforms in this country. From discussions on Clause 2 in this House on Second Reading and in Committee and from debates in another place the Minister will be aware of what was the basis of that anxiety.

It is partly historic sentiment; that is, losing the historic security that miners felt with the 1908 Act. It is also much sharper and more real. It is based on the feeling among miners that the underlying purpose of the Bill is to loosen and worsen their working conditions and thereby make it possible to increase the profits of the new private owners of the intended privatised coal industry. It is felt that the underlying purpose of the Bill is to prepare the way for that privatisation, for which it is a stepping stone.

Whatever the different views may be on the advantages or otherwise of privatisation, it is hard to escape one broad conclusion—that on the face of it the clause will mean that miners will work longer hours per shift below ground and will not be paid overtime for above seven-and-a-half hours. I am sure that the Minister will not lightly deny that simple conclusion.

The Minister replied to those arguments and anxieties with his customary patience, courtesy and helpfulness. He rightly pointed out that health and safety are no longer dependent on the 1908 Act; that more recent legislation is more relevant. He argued also that the 1908 Act is outdated because mechanisation has transformed the mines and many miners work longer hours in breach of the Act. We on this side accept much of that, subject to the qualifications I made at Second Reading concerning the undoubted continuing unpleasantness of working conditions underground, however transformed from 1908, and that miners work longer hours of their own choice with a right to overtime.

The acceptance by us of many of those arguments does not cover the whole issue which we address in the amendment. It does not cover the vital issue of the involvement of the miners in the safety of their own working conditions. Complaints have been made by the miners regarding the lack of consultation on the Bill. My noble friends Lord Dean and Lord Stoddart echoed those complaints in Committee. At Second Reading I reminded the Minister that a previous Secretary of State promised consultation before any moves were made towards introducing longer hours. That did not take place.

The Minister assured us that there will be consultation between British Coal and the miners' representatives on new working arrangements, which presumably means shifts of longer hours—he may wish to clarify that—in advance of the implementation of the new EC directive. We welcome that. But the amendment seeks to build on that and build it into the Act to ensure that safety is a normal part of collective agreements in the future, whatever that new future may be for the mining industry.

The heart and main thrust of the amendment concerns the involvement of all sides of the industry, especially the workers underground and their elected representatives, in both the construction and the implementation of the laws and rules relating to safety. The belief underlying the amendment is that safety is the prime concern; that it is the highest priority of those actually working underground. Where men are working in dangerous conditions—mining underground is still dangerous, as the tragedy at Wearmouth demonstrated only two weeks ago—it is both their right and the most effective way of achieving safety to involve them in the negotiation and implementation of safety procedures.

As my noble friends Lord Dean and Lord Stoddart, and the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said so convincingly in Committee from their wide practical experience, safety involves everybody. The safety procedures will be most widely obeyed by miners if the miners' representatives are involved in negotiation and especially in ensuring that they are enforced and obeyed by their own members. That is what the amendment, which I stress is constructive in intent, seeks to achieve. It also seeks in its wording to encourage collective agreements, freely negotiated, which are more favourable to safety than the 1908 Act or than the EC directive, which allows for conditions minimally worse than the 1908 Act. I cannot believe that the Minister will object to that.

In passing, perhaps I may say that we all welcome the most recent information on the state of the EC directive and the Government's attitude to it. As the Minister has often said, we have moved a long way since 1908. I am sure that he would wish that movement to be forward in safety terms. That is what the amendment seeks. I beg to move.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, raised once again an issue of considerable importance which was raised at previous stages of the Bill. While it is accepted without question that much has happened since 1908 and that the relevance of legislation in that year is no longer what was intended, nonetheless we feel that Clause 2 is stark in referring simply to the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908 ceasing to have effect without indicating what is to replace it.

The Secretary of State in another place and the Minister in this place indicated that the clause would not have effect until either the Community's proposed directive on working hours or some other provisions were put in place. Our anxiety is that whatever replaces the Act of 1908 should be discussed in this House and that the specific issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, should be borne in mind. Although it is strictly correct to say that the 1908 legislation was not concerned with safety but with hours of work, nevertheless hours of work have always traditionally impinged on safety. While it is correct to say that under present mining conditions the hours of work need not be restricted to those laid down in previous legislation, there must be safeguards, otherwise the whole operation underground could be relatively uncontrolled. I support the underlying intention of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue.

Lord Haslam

My Lords, I wish to make some general observations concerning this amendment. I believe that the role of the 1908 Act continues to enjoy an importance in our debates which it does not deserve. The Act has been virtually obsolete for many years. In recent years it has been widely ignored by management and mineworkers alike. Is that really surprising? Can one really expect a detailed Act, now over 80 years old, to have relevance in an industry which meanwhile has experienced vast technological change? The year 1908 represents the early pick and shovel era, which placed extreme physical demands on miners. The current highly mechanised mining methods now employed are light years removed from those conditions and thereby have dramatically reduced those punishing demands on mineworkers. However, one cannot deny that any underground working environment will always remain a harsh one.

The importance attached to safety in British Coal exceeds anything I have experienced in other industries. This is evident in the regular and continuing safety dialogue which exists between management and miners at colliery level. I do not know whether noble Lords appreciate that every month and at every colliery there is a meeting between management and mineworkers concerned with the issues of safety and other related matters. It is sometimes implied that British Coal is sacrificing safety on the altar of productivity or profitability. That is totally unjustified. Indeed, the converse is true, in that higher productivity has led to improved safety standards. For example, since 1985 British Coal's productivity has more than doubled while over the same period the accident rate has more than halved. The actual figures are that the all-accident rate in 1985–86 was 43.8 accidents per 100,000 man shifts worked. The current figure for the present year is about 21.4. I believe that that performance reflects great credit on management and miners alike.

Comprehensive and demanding legislation for safety in coal mines already exists centred on the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 and the overriding Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. Interestingly, the 1908 Act does not form part of that legislative structure. This is allied to the important role of the Mines Inspectorate—one has to emphasise its role—whose thoroughness and dedication in over-viewing all aspects of safety, including working hours, contributes to British Coal's safety standards being at the top of the deep mine world league. Undoubtedly a major factor is the dominant safety ethos which exists within the corporation itself.

I hope that this overall perspective of the safety situation within British Coal will be reassuring to the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, but I feel that it would be more appropriate for my noble friend Lord Cavendish to respond to the specific theme of this amendment. I believe that this whole Bill, as it was originally conceived, will be a most welcome and positive factor in ensuring that the UK coal industry will be best placed to meet the very formidable challenges it obviously faces.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I was not going to speak to this amendment because I believe that my noble friend Lord Donoughue covered it fairly comprehensively. However, I find myself in contention with some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Haslam. I respect his views as a former chairman of British Coal, but that does necessarily mean that I agree with them. It should be made quite clear that the amendment in the Marshalled List is not a figment of a political brain which wants to appear to be casting some doubt on the veracity of what the Government are trying to do. The amendment has been included in the Marshalled List at the express wish of the people employed in the industry.

The amendment is also in accord with what was said by the Select Committee of another place when it suggested that, before any legislation is brought forward to change the situation, there should be the fullest consultation with the people involved. What that means to noble Lords on this side of the House may be different to what the Government believe, bearing in mind the past legislation that we have dealt with. Very often the Government say "This is what we are doing. We are going to legislate" and so they do. Now they say "Now that the legislation is on the statute book we shall consult with those whom it affects".

That is not my view as to what is meant by consultation. If there is to be a specific and definite change in something involving workpeople—I say this as a former factory worker myself—there is no point in telling them that they can consult when the Act is a fait accompli. So far as the workpeople are concerned, consultation is meaningless unless they are able to form particular views on the subject. When the noble Lord, Lord Haslam, referred to present aspects I believe that he was talking about the situation between pit and pit. I am not so familiar with the mining industry as he is or the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Haslam, was talking about what can be done with the present Coal Board and its activities.

However, we are not dealing with that situation. There is no question at all but that, if the Government are returned, and if they can, they will pursue some form of privatisation of the coal mining industry. That is no secret. The Secretary of State has made public his views on that subject. We are saying that, whatever happens in terms of who is in control of the mining industry, the miners and their representatives should have the right to be involved with such safety measures which are designed to operate within the industry.

I was a factory worker. I said at Committee stage that I believed that a mine was a kind of factory. It is a production unit and a very dangerous type of factory. Unless one involves the people who are employed in those dangerous jobs and the representatives whom they appoint or elect, they will not have the necessary strength to deal with the situation. Some time ago I went to the site of the Channel Tunnel. That project was given serious consideration because of the number of accidents which were taking place. What was undertaken was carried out immediately. The union representatives or the men's representatives on site were involved at the point of contact. It would be a dereliction of duty for the Committee merely to say tonight that everything will be all right and that the mineworkers are consulted at present.

The point was eloquently made by my noble friend Lord Donoughue. We are simply stating what was said by the Select Committee of another place; namely, that whatever happens the mine workers should be consulted before legislation is brought before the House as they are being asked to give up a very long and well-proven system of employment in the mines. That is the situation as we see it. That is a little different from what the noble Lord, Lord Haslam, said with his first-class knowledge on the subject. I believe that we are on two different wavelengths. I support what my noble friend Lord Donoughue has said on the matter.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, for introducing the amendment in the name of his noble friend. I also thank other noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I was not entirely convinced that the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, had his heart in this amendment to the extent that he seemed to acknowledge that there was a symbolism about the 1908 Act. I am not sure that I did not notice the same flavour in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. Flavour counts in these matters. There is a long tradition in the coal industry and it is as well and reasonable for people to be suspicious of change.

I should say straightaway—and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dean, will acknowledge this—that this Bill would be necessary whether or not the industry was privatised. I shall not go into the matter of whether or not there are secrets. Of course there are no secrets in that area. We are dealing with the coal industry today just as much as we might be dealing with the coal industry at any future date. In talking about the symbolism, or the sentiment behind the 1908 Act, I have to agree with my noble friend that it continues to enjoy an importance in our debates which it really does not deserve—to which, I might add, any more.

Noble Lords opposite must decide whether they want to make the regulation of health and safety at work a matter for the 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 United Kingdom. The 1908 Act does not form part of that legislative structure. The principal statutes relevant to health and safety, as I said at Second Reading and again at Committee stage, are the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 and the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. I do not think that that is disputed.

There are also a number of other important measures relating to specific aspects of safety in mines. This system has been strengthened progressively over the years and there is no question of it being weakened. Safety for mineworkers is and will remain paramount. The Government, I can promise, will not take any action which threatens the safety of mineworkers. I was grateful to my noble friend who spoke on this matter persuasively and with authority.

Collective agreements, however, do have a role to play. They can assist good industrial relations. Indeed, the Government are taking powers to repeal the 1908 Act well in advance of implementing the repeal precisely so that the management and the workforce will have ample time and a suitable basis to negotiate sensibly on new working agreements which will be needed when the 1908 Act finally goes and the EC directive on working time is adopted.

The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, asked what was the exact status of the directive—an update, so to speak. The directive has been drafted on the basis of Article 118A of the EC treaty. The main provisions of the latest version of the directive, dated November 1991, are as follows: a minimum daily rest period of 11 hours (Article 3); a minimum weekly rest period of 35 hours, including a daily 11 hour period and, in principle, including Sunday (Article 5); a maximum working time of 48 hours a week, averaged over three months (Article 6); four weeks' minimum annual paid holiday (Article 7); a maximum of eight hours a day for night workers averaged over an agreed reference period (Article 8).

The Social Affairs Council discussed the draft directive on 3rd December 1991. The next formal meeting is not until April. The Portuguese presidency is, however, expected to make a strong effort to reach a common position by June. The present draft provides for compliance within three years of the adoption of the directive. The previous draft included a compliance date of 31st December 1992. It would be brought into force in the UK by regulations made under Section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972. The Department of Employment is in the lead in consultation with other interested parties, including the Department of Energy and British Coal. British Coal feels it will not be able to comply with both the directive and the Coal Mines Regulations Act 1908. The 1908 Act restricts the period underground to seven hours 15 minutes, plus one hour winding time. British Coal is worried that the directive, in conjunction with the 1908 Act, will debar many of the flexible working arrangements upon which its increase in productivity is founded.

British Coal has to give six months' notice before re-negotiating working hours agreements. The negotiations could easily take a number of months beyond that. I hope that noble Lords will see that powers to repeal the 1908 Act are therefore needed very well in advance of the date when the directive may be adopted.

I have sought to say that we expect consultation and that there will be consultation. Furthermore, I hope to have illustrated that, through the Bill, no consultation will be denied. Under the United Kingdom system of statutory regulation of health and safety the employers will have to pay due regard to health and safety when concluding new working arrangements. The Health and Safety Executive can take action if health and safety are put at risk. With that explanation I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, perhaps I may first say to the noble Lord, Lord Haslam, that I felt he had written his speech before he heard what I had to say. My approach was constructive and I stated, and feel, nothing negative about the safety situation in British Coal. The Minister said that he senses that our hearts are not in this amendment. I reject that totally. My heart is not in any negative, partisan, broad, or shotgun approach to this Bill. It contains few proposals and I am fully in support of those relating to the redundancy payments to miners.

Where my heart is fully relates to the helpful statement made by the Minister in defining the difference between our two sides. He said that health and safety was for government, not for the people in the industry. That is quite a telling quotation. My heart is fully in opposing that view. Of course governments do and should set the general framework for safety and they should certainly establish minimum standards of protection. However, I restate —and this is the core of what we are saying—that those in the industry, those facing the dangers in mining and working underground, must be involved. They must be involved in defining the procedures and especially in implementing them, because it is their lives that are at risk.

That is the distinction between the two sides. We are trying to be positive. I cannot see any reason why this amendment should not be added to the Bill, because it is a supportive elaboration. It is not in any way destructive and it does not undermine anything else in the Bill. I am sorry that that has not been accepted. Having heard the arguments and in view of that distinction between the two sides I feel that I must divide the House.

7.38 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 2) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 41; Not-Contents, 78.

Division No. 3
Airedale, L. Jay, L.
Birk, B. Jeger, B.
Blackstone, B. John-Mackie, L.
Carter, L. [Teller.] Judd, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Kilbracken, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Mackie of Benshie, L.
David, B. McNair, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Donoughue, L. Mayhew, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Morris of Castle Morris, L.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Ezra, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Foot, L. Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Gallacher, L. [Teller.] Rochester, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Seear, B.
Gregson, L. Serota, B.
Grey, E. Shackleton, L.
Hampton, L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Hamwee, B. Turner of Camden, B.
Hilton of Eggardon, B. Underhill, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B.
Acton, L. Kimball, L.
Annaly, L. Kinnoull, E.
Arran, E. Lawrence, L.
Astor, V. Long, V.
Auckland, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Balfour, E. Lyell, L.
Beloff, L. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Blatch, B. Mackay of Clashfern, L.
Boardman, L. Macleod of Borve, B.
Borthwick, L. Mancroft, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Marlesford, L.
Brigstocke, B. Mountevans, L.
Carlisle of Bucklow, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. O'Cathain, B.
Carnock, L. Oxfuird, V.
Cavendish of Furness, L. Park of Monmouth, B.
Coleraine, L. Pearson of Rannoch, L.
Cross, V. Perry of Southwark, B.
Cumberlege, B. Rankeillour, L.
Darcy (de Knayth), B. Reay, L.
Denham, L. Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, L.
Denton of Wakefield, B. Rennell, L.
Eccles, V. Renton, L.
Elton, L. St. John of Bletso, L.
Faithfull, B. Seccombe, B.
Ferrers, E. Selborne, E.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Gray of Contin, L. Strange, B.
Greenway, L. Strathclyde, L.
Gridley, L. Strathmore and Kinghorne, E. [Teller.]
Hardinge of Penshurst, L.
Harvington, L. Sudeley, L.
Haslam, L. Swinton, E.
Henley, L. Teviot, L.
Hesketh, L. [Teller.] Thomas of Gwydir, L.
HolmPatrick, L. Trumpington, B.
Hooper, B. Ullswater, V.
Howe, E. Waddington, L.
Johnston of Rockport, L. Wade of Chorlton, L.
Killearn, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

7.46 p.m.

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.10 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.46 to 8.10 p.m.]