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New Clause—(Restriction With Respect To Shot-Firing)

Volume 65: debated on Thursday 30 July 1914

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(1) No shot-hole shall be charged in any mine and no detonator inserted except by means of an appliance provided by the owner of the mine and of a type approved for the time being by the Secretary of State.

(2) The Secretary of State, before approving any appliance under this Section, shall satisfy himself, as far as practicable, that it is of a type which allows the detonator—

  • (a) to be inserted safely after the shot-hole has been rammed; and
  • (b) to be withdrawn rapidly and safely from the hole.
  • (3) The powers conferred on the Secretary of State by this Section shall be in addition to and not in derogation of any other powers for the regulation of the use of electricity or explosives in mines.

    (4) This Section shall come into operation on the first day of January, nineteen hundred and fifteen, and shall have effect as though it were included in Part II. of the Coal Mines Act, 1911.—[ Viscount Wolmer.]

    Clause brought up, and read the first time.

    I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a second time."

    Before I proceed to discuss it, I think I am justified in making a complaint against the Government for the manner in which they are rushing this Bill through. I have no possible objection to the Bill, but I think it is rather hard on the House that the Second Reading should be passed at two o'clock this morning, and that we should be asked to immediately proceed with it in Committee.

    I merely said it to account for certain difficulties which confront me in presenting this Clause to the House at such short notice. It is entirely the fault of the Government, and not my fault. This Clause is designed to make some attempt to minimise the number of accidents, fatal and otherwise, that take place in our coal mines every year. I am sure this is a question which interests the House very much indeed—not only those Members that happen to sit for mining constituencies, but also the whole House, which I am certain would be willing and ready to do anything it could that would tend to reduce the terrible loss of life and limb which annually occur in our coal mines. This Clause only attempts to deal with one particular branch of the question—with what are known as shot-firing accidents—accidents which are due to some mistake or unlooked-for occurrence in shot-firing. In order to show to the House what a serious matter this is, I will quote some figures that have been courteously supplied to me by the Home Secretary. I asked the right hon. Gentleman, on the 16th June, for figures relating to shot-firing accidents that had taken place during the last ten years, and in his reply, which Will be found in the OFFICIAL REPORT of that date, he gives the figures for every year. I only propose to give the totals to the House. During that period there were 220 fatal shot-firing accidents, in which 517 men lost their lives.

    I will come to that presently. With regard to non-fatal accidents, there were, in the same period, 1,634 in which 1,997 persons were injured. These figures relate to coal mines. In quarries, there were 89 fatal accidents in which 98 persons were killed, and 716 nonfatal accidents in which 888 persons were injured. It will be agreed that that is an appalling loss of life. It may be but a small proportion of the total death roll in that period, but still it is a considerable figure, and if we can do anything to reduce the number I am sure the House will be glad and ready to do it. In reply to the hon. Member for Merthyr, I have to say these figures of course include all shot-firing accidents. I asked the Home Secretary for a further analysis, but he was not able to supply it. It is very difficult indeed to analyse the exact cause of many accidents, but on that point I should like to remark that these figures do not really include the total loss of life that may have occurred through shot-firing accidents. There have been great accidents, like the Maypole Colliery Disaster, which have always remained a bit of a mystery, and it is conceivable that—

    Is the Noble Lord entitled to go into this general question? His proposed Clause has to do with the misfiring of shots, and I submit he is not entitled to go into the general question.

    I am dealing with shot-firing, and I am endeavouring to show to the House that a great number of lives are lost every year through shot-firing accidents, and that therefore it is necessary to make some regulation of this kind.

    May I ask whether, having regard to the fact that the Clause does not seek to restrict the use of explosives, the Noble Lord is entitled to deal with the whole question of explosives in mines?

    I am merely giving figures, showing the number of deaths from shot-firing accidents.

    This is a highly technical subject of which I do not claim to have much knowledge, and I shall be very glad if the Noble Lord will come to the immediate object of his Clause. I think he has stated sufficiently his general grounds, and I will now ask him to keep to the Clause.

    8.0 P.M.

    It is not my intention to take up the time of the House, and I do not understand why the hon. Member does not desire a full discussion of the subject. These accidents occur when a shot-hole has been rammed. In some cases the wires connecting the detonator with the electric battery are injured in the ramming, and when it is sought to explode the detonator there is a short circuit, the detonator does not explode, and there is a misfire. That is caused by the fact that the wires connecting the detonator to the battery are inserted before the hole is rammed. My Clause is designed to provide that the detonator shall be inserted only after the shot-hole has been rammed. The fact that the wires are sometimes broken, or that the insulation is knocked off, is a comparatively frequent cause of misfiring. There are a great number of misfires, but only a comparatively small proportion result in serious explosions. It should always be remembered that every misfire is to a certain extent a potential accident. Many of these shot-firing accidents have occurred through there having been in the first instance a misfire, then a second shot-hole has been drilled, and, an explosion having taken place, the old live detonator lies among the débris and somebody either knocks or hits it, or there is some pressure of weight upon it which explodes it and causes disaster. It is to remedy that particular form of accident that this new Clause is proposed. There is another sort of accident the Clause is intended to provide against, namely, cases where the detonator occasionally explodes in the actual ramming of the hole. If the detonator is inserted after the hole has been rammed, then the chance of its being exploded in that manner is very much lessened. The Clause gives the Secretary of State the fullest authority to exercise his discretion within the limits laid down.

    I must inform the House that I know of only one appliance that comes within the description of this Clause, the appliance with which everyone in the coal business is familiar, known as the "P.P." appliance. I have no sort of interest, direct or indirect, in that appliance or in the company. I am exceedingly unwilling to confer a monopoly by Act of Parliament upon a particular company or syndicate, or upon a particular form of invention. Therefore, I have tried to draft the Clause in such a way that the essential points of safety which are claimed by this particular invention are safeguarded, while it does not preclude competition with other inventions which fulfil these conditions. If the drafting of the Clause can be improved, I should, of course, welcome any assistance hon. Members can give in that direction. Although if this Clause were adopted it might possibly have the effect of bringing a large profit to those interested in this particular invention, yet when it is a case of saving human life that is not a reason which ought to deter this House from insisting upon anything which it thinks is essential to the greatest safety. If it is a case of the saving of the lives of men and boys we ought not to be deterred from passing this Clause by the fact that there is an invention in which a company is interested who would perhaps make a profit if the Clause were carried into operation.

    No doubt various objections will be raised to the Clause. In the first place, some hon. Members may say that if this invention is satisfactory and affords all that is claimed for it, why not leave it to be voluntarily adopted by coal-owners? That is a very legitimate criticism, but in these days of keen competition there is always a difficulty in introducing a new system of this sort. I believe the system has been tried in several collieries and, generally, with great success. It undoubtedly increases the cost of production to the extent of about one-fifth of a penny per ton. That is not a very large sum, but when you are dealing with thousands of tons it may come to a considerable amount. I do not think it is the cost which prevents colliery owners from taking up an invention of this sort, because I am perfectly certain that if colliery owners were convinced that any invention would increase the safety of life they would adopt it, no matter what the cost might be. The real difficulty in this matter is that there is an innate conservatism, which I should be very glad to see exercised on other subjects, among colliery managers and miners. Those who have had experience of these matters will agree that it is very often the case that a new invention which is subsequently universally adopted at first meets with considerable opposition, especially from masters and men, merely on account of their conservatism and dislike to adopting a new system. I believe that is a real difficulty. That is why I desire to make the use of this particular form of appliance compulsory, because it would overcome the difficulty and tend to increase safety in the mines.

    Will the Noble Lord say whether he desires this particular form of appliance to be adopted?

    If the hon. Member can show me any way in which the drafting of the Clause can be improved so as to make it wider, I shall only be too glad. I particularly do not want to confer a monopoly on the P.P. people. All I desire is that these provisions, which will make for greater safety in mines, should be made compulsory, and that there should be free competition amongst all firms who can supply appliances of the sort. I may be asked what argument have you to show that this system of shot-firing will make for greater, safety in mines. One of the strongest arguments that can possibly be brought forward is that we have a very strong expression of opinion from miners themselves on the subject. A few days ago I asked the Home Secretary:—

    "Whether he has received copies of resolutions passed by miners or their trade union representatives. calling upon the Government to make compulsory the use of some safety shot-firing appliance in coal mines; and, if so, whether he can state which of them were miners' trade unions, and how many men were represented in each case?"
    The right hon. Gentleman's reply was:—
    "I have received copies of resolutions from various associations or branches, including the chief firemen's associations, the South Wales Miners' Federation, and branch committees of the Derby. Durham, and Nottinghamshire Miners' Federations, but I am unable to say how many men were represented in each case."
    I can give the right hon. Gentleman a much longer list of important trade unions that have passed resolutions on this subject. Among them will be found the South Wales and Monmouthshire Colliery Examiners' Association, the General Federation of Colliery Firemen's Examiners' and Deputies' Associations of Great Britain, Derbyshire, Under-Managers' and Deputies' Institute, Durham Deputy Overmen's Mutual Aid Association, the Nottinghamshire Miners' Association, the South Wales Miners' Federation, and many others. I have scores of resolutions which have been forwarded to me on this subject. These are the men who work in the mines, and whose lives are in jeopardy. If there is a body of opinion which I trust on questions of this sort, it is that of the men whose lives and the fortunes of whose families are involved. It is a strong thing for this House to set at nought the strong expressions of opinion which have been conveyed in the numerous resolutions which I have here, and which I shall be happy to show to any hon. Member, although I will not detain the Committee by reading them. I have also been shown a letter from a colliery manager who has tried this particular invention, and who stated that prior to its use they had an average of two misfires per week, but since using it they have had no misfires at all. It is true they have only been using it for six months.

    It is a private letter, and I can show it to the right hon. Gentleman, but I have no authority to make it public. I have another letter from a colliery manager which I think I can read. It is from Mr. John Barker, of the Bishop Middleman Quarry.

    Have hon. Members any objection to a company getting hold of an invention of this sort and promoting it? They are perfectly entitled to do so, and their recommendations should be taken by this House at their face value, knowing where they come from. The expression of opinion by a colliery manager written to this firm is a testimony that ought to be taken into account. It says:—

    "Every misfire has been successfully dealt with during this period without the necessity of wasting a single charge or the labour of boring for holes. In my opinion with the aid of this method the terror of misfires and hang-fires should entirely disappear, while the risk which has always existed under the old method is entirely obviated."

    I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman that. Then there is another opinion which I should like to quote, and which I know will carry great weight in this House, the opinion of the hon. Member (Mr. Brace). He has stated that in his opinion it is a great pity that this appliance is not in use in every colliery in the county. I think that is a very important declaration. This particular invention was the work of a practical collier who was acquainted with the conditions, and who personally had personal reason to know the danger of shot-firing accidents. Then there is another point which might be urged by the Government, and that is that this Clause, extends to all mines, whereas the arguments I have been using only apply where electrical shot-firing is carried out. That is perfectly true. This form of safety appliance only applies, I think, to electrical shot-firing. The reason why I have made it applicable to all mines is that if it is going to make for greater safety, it ought to be extended everywhere. Cost ought not really to enter into the consideration at all, and if we are considering safety and believe that a certain system will make for greater safety, it ought to be applied in every direction. As a matter of fact, the cost of installing electricity for shot-firing I do-not believe will be very much greater than the additional cost that is necessitated by this invention in other directions.

    That obviously could not be applied there. If the hon. Member has any Amendment to propose on that score, I should be only too glad to co-operate with him, but he knows perfectly well that in the more dangerous mines where there is a high percentage of dangerous gas, electricity is compulsory, and therefore I do not see why it should not be made compulsory in other directions as well. I offer this new Clause to the House and I hope they will give it very sympathetic consideration. I think I have been able to show that there is a great weight of expert opinion behind it. There is the expert opinion of the men themselves, and I should like to know how we can discountenance that, and can afford rot to pay great respect to it. I think I have been able to show that the increased cost would not be very great, and that in any case it ought not to count where the safety of our fellow citizens working underground is involved, and, therefore, I hope that hon. Members will give this proposal a sympathetic hearing. If anything can be done to increase the safety of our mines I am sure this House will do it, and, therefore, I commend it to the House with great confidence.

    The Noble Lord desires to increase safety in mines. So do we all. The Noble Lord desires to avoid the creation of a monopoly. So do we all. The Noble Lord is anxious that what he describes as a handsome profit should not be stolen from a private company by Act of Parliament. So are we all. We all have a common object. Strangely enough this Amendment, more or less, defeats every object which he has in view. I am sanguine enough to hope that before this Debate is concluded the Noble Lord will not proceed with this new Clause. He is asking this Committee to convert itself into an expert Committee in order to determine the safety of a particular appliance. He may accept it from me, on the best expert advice of the country, that this Clause means one particular apparatus and no other. There is no other apparatus except the P.P. which would satisfy the language of this Clause. It is a patent apparatus. He may accept it as an absolute fact that there is no other apparatus at present in the market, and no amendment of the Clause which we could accept would take away that character from it unless it excluded the P.P. apparatus. So he must accept it that in this Clause he is proposing that we should convert ourselves into an expert Committee in order to impose upon the whole colliery industry a particular apparatus which is the monopoly of a private company.

    The Noble Lord will agree that at the Home Office we have expert advisers of as great experience as any persons in the country. This apparatus has been examined, tested, and reported upon. There is no animus against it. It was considered so favourably that in September of last year it was permitted, and from that moment it became open for the whole colliery industry of this country to adopt the P.P. in every case in which it was desired to adopt it. There is a friendly feeling for this invention, but my experts who advised me in the use of the P.P. apparatus have also advised me, and have repeated that advice to-day, that the use of this apparatus is not one whit safer than conformity with the ordinary Regulations which govern shot-firing. Will the Noble Lord really ask the House to give a judgment upon an expert matter of this kind contrary to the expert advice of the responsible Department, who tell him that while they have nothing to say against this device, its use does not render shot-firing any safer than conformity with the ordinary Regulations? Will he still ask the House to give a monopoly to a company which is not going to confer upon it, as he says, perhaps a profit, but is going to give them a monopoly in the firing of millions, even scores of millions, of shots, every year? If the Noble Lord had considered what he was doing, I am sure he would not have lent himself to this proposal for a single instant. Since September this apparatus has been allowed. I have not the figures as to the number of shots fired for the last year, but in 1912 there were upwards of 40,000,000 shots fired underground. In the ten months since the apparatus has been available there have been over 30,000,000 shots fired. What experience has the Noble Lord got of this apparatus? Has it been fired in hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands? How has its use resulted? What does the Noble Lord know about it?

    You have got the information with respect to a number of experiments.

    I will come to that in a moment. How much has the apparatus been used? Has it been in general use in a commercial sense in any colliery in the country? He cannot say that it has, and yet he would ask this House to give a monopoly of this magnitude and enormous value to a particular company that own the patent rights in the apparatus. I do not blame the company. They have done their best with me. I have had letters on the subject. I have been approached a great many times from every quarter of the country by people who have strongly recommended this apparatus to my consideration, and I have replied that it is a new apparatus. Let people who are concerned, and who, the Noble Lord says, would adopt it in mines for safety, independent of the cost, take it up if it really effects the object which he has in view. Can he give the name of a single colliery where it has been adopted and is in general use? This company is a very clever advertising concern, and it has had demonstrations of the use of this particular apparatus before meetings of representatives of collieries, who have been much impressed with the. advantages and excellence of the invention. I am not denying the excellence of the invention. I am not disputing its value, and I have no doubt that if the representatives of a number of collieries are brought to see a friendly demonstration of that kind, they may be induced to go away enthusiastic from the friendly entertainment, and to pass resolutions in favour of this particular apparatus. Is. that a reason for asking Parliament to give a monopoly to the company? The Noble Lord does not know what he is asking. It is a monopoly which is intended to abolish the use of firing by squibs and fuses. He is going to abolish all that, and insist on the uniform use of electricity in all the mines of the country where it does not exist now, and, while making that proposal, his experience is founded on a few demonstrations of the use of the apparatus. I would ask the Noble Lord really to consider what is the position. When he can come to the House and say that this apparatus has been tested and approved by prolonged commercial use in collieries A, B, C and D, and that the employers have generally found it to be more safe than the ordinary methods of shot-firing, he may then be in a position to offer advice. With great respect, I should hesitate to recommend the apparatus for which this company has the monopoly. I would hesitate to make such a recommendation to this House on such limited experience as we have at present. I hope the Noble Lord will not insist on this Amendment.

    The telegram is marked "Victoria Street," and says:—

    "Viscount Wolmer invites your support of the Coal Mines Bill, Which is expected to come on on 7th May."

    I was only informed of the telegram after it was sent. It was sent after I had informed the syndicate that I was going to move this Amendment. They asked me whether they might use my name to say that I was bringing this matter forward, and I said "Yes." I was only informed of the telegram afterwards. I would not have sent it in my name, for I have no desire to move Members of the House on a particular proposal of that sort. That telegram was sent out owing to a misunderstanding on the part of those who did send it out.

    I have no complaint to make of this company. It is one of the best organised from the commercial standpoint that has ever come within my experience. The Noble Lord sent the questions which he has asked to every Member of the House. The company have sent all the statistics to every Member of the House, they have also sent every conceivable Government Return published on the subject, and they have taken every possible means they can to point out the evils of shot-firing. I have some sympathy with this invention. I think it is an invention which can be used with advantage; probably it will be a useful invention for preventing shots in pits, and I may tell the Noble Lord—I think he will be surprised to hear it—that I have done my best to make the Home Office give it a test in mines. It was not possible for this apparatus to be used in coal mines without a Special Order from the Home Secretary. The right hon. Gentleman very carefully considered the matter and gave a special permit for one of these appliances to be used in a mine of which I am the owner. The appliance was tried, and on the whole it was favourably reported on, with the exception that the shot-firers were not able to go round the mine carrying this with them, because they had to crawl on their knees and hands. Apart from that, it worked well, and the cost of the apparatus is only a few shillings. The number that would be required in a colliery in any case would not exceed ten or a dozen or twenty.

    Therefore the cost of providing the apparatus is absolutely nothing worth considering. It would, of course, be profitable for the company if its use was spread over the whole of the mines of the country. It would be a very profitable transaction if they could get its use made compulsory. It has been said that colliery owners are conservative in regard to the adopting of new methods. The Noble Lord might give us credit for having gone into this question, and tried the apparatus. In the colliery where this appliance was tried the manager is a young and energetic man who is desirous of doing everything possible in adopting methods to secure safety. He states that he has not adopted it on account of its structural weakness. The company approached the Miners' Federation and asked them to make the use of the appliance compulsory. I understand that the Miners' Federation refused to do so. They said that they were in favour of an appliance of this kind if it would prevent accidents in mines. I think still with the Noble Lord there is something to be said for the apparatus. If the Noble Lord put down an Amendment to the Bill providing that the Home Secretary, if satisfied that an appliance of this character not of a patent form would reduce shot-firing, should have power to prescribe it, I should be in favour of it. On the merits of the question I do not think that this Committee, which is not composed of experts, having regard to the fact that this apparatus has not been reported on by any Commission or any practical people, should order it to be used. I am sure that the Noble Lord must see that it is not right to ask the House of Commons, without much fuller information, to come to a decision such as he proposes in a matter which affects the life and safety of men in mines. If the Noble Lord had moved his Amendment in the form that I have indicated, I should have supported him. I had a similar Amendment to put down to this Bill, and the Home Secretary came to me and said, "This is an agreed Bill. We are responsible for it. We are responsible if we do not carry out our promise. It is a very proper Bill." That being so, on no side of the House have any Amendments been put down, either by the Liberal party, the Labour party, or the Conservative party. The Bill having been agreed upon, I hope that the Noble Lord will not press his Amendment.

    I think that a few words from these benches might not be out of place. It is perfectly true, as the hon. Baronet says, that this Bill is really an agreed Bill. It may be remembered that at the beginning of the Session very strong representations were made from these benches as to the terrible mortality from accidents taking place in the mines, and as to what we held to be the inadequacy of the Government's proposals in dealing with those accidents. The whole matter was very well ventilated in this House, and the Amendments proposed from these benches were subsequently withdrawn. After that the Miners' Federation was still hopeful that the Government would take effective measures. Of course, it is not for us now to indulge in any reproaches. I think that it is very probable that Government Departments find themselves quite unable, even with the best of intentions, to carry out their desires, and everybody knows the immense pressure of public business, and especially the immense pressure on the Home Office. After all we are inclined to blame Government Departments a great deal too much, and I say quite openly that the work of the Home Office is one that reflects the greatest possible credit upon it. When we know the multifarious objects with which that Department is concerned, and the immense output of work that passes through its hands, I for one wonder how it can get through all its work. But, apart from the merits or the demerits of a particular Department, I do know that the work of the Session has been tremendously heavy. The Miners' Federation did meet the Home Secretary with a view to pressing on him the desirability of strengthening this Bill, which he promised at the back-end of the Session of 1912. The terrible accident, on which I need not dwell, happened, and it was felt that there were certain deficiencies in the law, and it was thought desirable that those deficiencies should be removed. This Bill really meets those particular deficiencies, and when the Federation saw the Home Secretary he pointed out that he was quite unable to do more than redeem his promise, and that if we did really desire to press forward Amendments of a controversial character, he could not carry out the promise which he desired in every sense to redeem.

    I think that the Noble Lord ought not to be taunted in any way with the object of this Clause. It is a Clause with which we should all agree if it did not confer a monopoly. I think that everybody who listened to the Noble Lord must admit, at least, that he is endeavouring to make himself thoroughly well informed on this subject, and everybody agrees as to the perfect sincerity of his motives. He represents a mining constituency near my own. But I do not think that because a man sits on the Conservative Benches we ought to impute his motives in a matter concerning the safety of workers in mines. I am very glad to feel that he is associating himself so particularly with the question of safety in mines. But this is a Clause which really would not carry out the objects intended. It is absolutely impossible for it to do so. I speak from close personal knowledge. At the present moment it is impossible to say "there is a detonator which can be either safely withdrawn or safely inserted." Accidents have happened under conditions under which one would have thought that it would be almost impossible for such accidents to happen. I do not wish to ramble into reminiscences, but only the other week I attended an inquest upon a person who was ramming with a wooden rammer. With a detonator of this kind everybody thought that there would be no possible accident, yet the poor fellow was blown to pieces. In such circumstances it is quite impossible to say, until this kind of thing is investigated in a far more ample manner than has yet been the case, that these conditions can be complied with.

    This House is sincerely desirous of doing all that it can to lessen detonating accidents. But if we had introduced an individual Clause of this kind, the colliery owners themselves and all interested in collieries might very well say, "You are imposing on us obligations for the usefulness of which no prima facie case has been established. You cannot prove to us that the object which you are endeavouring to attain will be secured by this Clause." In such circumstances I hope that the Noble Lord will withdraw the Clause for the time being, hoping that when a new Session gives him a better opportunity, and his information is of a larger kind than at present exists, he may proceed to carry out his object, with which we are all in unison. This is really an agreed Bill. We are all desirous to narrow the margin of controversy, and I sincerely hope that the Noble Lord will withdraw the Clause and let the Bill pass as an agreed Bill.

    I think that everyone is agreed that this question of shot-firing is one of the most important questions connected with the safety of mines and coal miners. Undoubtedly it is a matter to which the Home Office, as well as all the other experts who are familiar with this question, would be well advised to give the closest attention. I quite agree with what has been suggested that the time is not quite right for the application of a. Clause such as this. I thoroughly appreciate and accept the situation of this particular Bill with which we are dealing. It is vital to get it passed in view of the sad accident to which reference has been made. It will be a great improvement on the existing law, and as such I welcome-it. I, myself, represent a constituency which to a very large extent is very deeply interested in the mining industry, and I am sure, in common with other hon. Gentlemen, we are all, at any rate, anxious to do the best we can, and not only as well as possible, but as speedily as possible, to promote the safety of life in mines, although we equally wish not to hurry too fast, or to adopt too speedily any new remedy which at first sight may appear to be good. I am in full sympathy with the hon. Member who has just spoken, and I agree also with the suggestion that the Amendment should be withdrawn.

    Before we go on with the Amendment I should like to say one word in reply to what was said by the Home Secretary in regard to monopoly. I feel that it is a real difficulty that if somebody makes a good invention it confers a monopoly, but if it is going to make for greater safety in the mines, I think it ought to be granted by this House. Personally, I would confer it even upon the Home Secretary, if it made him a millionaire ten times over, if I felt that the effect of it would be to produce greater safety in the dangerous calling of the miner. I feel the full force of what has been said by hon. Members on the other side, representing both the colliery owners' point of view and the miners' point of view, and, in the circumstances, I ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

    Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

    Bill reported, without Amendment; read the third time, and passed.