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Mines Department

Volume 236: debated on Thursday 6 March 1930

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £10. be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1930, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Mines Department of the Board of Trade."

This Supplementary Estimate does not call for a long explanation. It is merely a token Vote. The gross expenditure of the Mines Department will exceed by just over £1,300 the amount originally provided. There is really no increase in the net expenditure of the Department, for the reason that the work which has, in the main, led to the gross expenditure being exceeded, has also resulted in an equivalent increase in the receipts shown under Subhead H. Provision for the work I have referred to is made under Subhead E, and I will therefore deal first with that excess. It is due to an unforeseen increase in the work of testing explosives used in mines. Up to a few years ago explosives were tested at Rotherham, but owing to difficulties with the supply of gas for testing purposes the station had to be closed, and temporary arrange- ments were made to carry out the testing elsewhere. Before the new permanent arrangements could be made it was found necessary to reconstitute the form of test, and the work of formulating the new test was entrusted to the Explosives in Mines Research Committee of the Mines Re-search Board. When the current year's Estimates of the Department were being prepared it did not appear likely that the new test would be in operation for more than a short period of the financial year. It was found later on to be possible to complete it during the past summer, and a large number of existing explosives were sent to the Department for retesting, and a number of new ones were also dealt with. It was not right, of course, that this important work should be held up when once the new test was completed. In these circumstances the cost of the testing work is likely to exceed the amount provided for by about £1,000. There have been savings on other items which make the cost only £475. The cost of testing is met by fees paid by manufacturers of explosives and the receipts under Subhead H will exceed by just over £1,300, the amount in the Estimates. The excess under Subhead C is a small one owing to the amount spent on telephones with an increased inspectorate and more use of the telephone system. The remaining excess comes under salaries, wages, and allowances due to the cost-of-living bonus which has been explained to the House recently. The amount therefore that will be required is £10, but actually we have not spent any additional money, and this is largely, therefore, a book-keeping arrangement.

There are one or two questions which I would like to ask. In the first place, with regard to Subhead A, Salaries, Wages and Allowances, the hon. Gentleman has said that that has already been dealt with under other circumstances. This is further provision required because of the retention of the Civil Service bonus. [Interruption.] Nearly one-fifth of the Socialist party are representatives of the mining areas, and I should have thought that they would at least have taken an interest in the Mines Department. At any rate, they are not going to stop me by their interjections.

I do not think that the remark made by the hon. and gallant Member is in Order or fair. To speak of the mining Members not taking an interest in this Vote is wrong, and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman ought to withdraw it.

I do not think that that is a point of Order. I was referring to the interruptions and interjections from below the Gangway. I know the hon. Member opposite does take a keen interest in mining affairs and in all matters in this House, but, when I get up for a few minutes to put a few questions to the Secretary for Mines, it it only right that Members opposite should allow me to make a few remarks. Under Subhead A it says that further provision is required to meet the cost of the retention of the Civil Service bonus at a cost-of-living figure of 70 for the full year. Does that mean that it is further to the provision already made, or that it is further to the Estimates which were presented to the House last year? I know the retention of the figure has come in since the original Estimates were put forward, and I am wondering why other Estimates do not contain any Supplementary Vote for that amount, whereas the Estimates of the Mines Department do. I am not objecting to it in the slightest. I am glad that the Mines Department is making that provision. I am wondering whether any previous provision had been made and whether this was further to such provision or further to the Estimates presented last year.

The Secretary for Mines tells us that the increased charge of £95 for telegrams and telephones is due to an increase in the inspectorate. May I ask to what extent the inspectorate has been increased? Is it owing to the pressure of business in the Mines Department; have they had to put in a new telephone line to the Board of Trade? I do not know what increase in the inspectorate could justify an increase of £95. The estimate of the Mines Department are so very carefully drawn up that it is surprising to find a difference of £95 on such an item as telegrams and telephones.

Then as to technical research. The Secretary for Mines has told us that owing to the change in the explosives gallery from Rotherham to Buxton there was a difficulty in carrying out tests with regard to explosives. When it was moved to Buxton they found a difficulty in carrying out the tests; the experiments did not give satisfactory results. The Research Board, therefore, carried out fresh experiments and I am glad to know that they have developed so far that they are now in a position to use them in regard to explosives sent in by outside firms. When I was at the Mines Department there was a general hold-up by manufacturers of explosives. They knew that a new test was being devised and did not send in their explosives for tests as regularly as they had done, and there was likely to be an accumulation by the time the test was finally evolved. The hon. Member also mentioned various new-explosives which had come in and which tended to increase the amount that is being met by this estimate. I do not expect him to be able to give me details, but I am interested in a certain experiment which is being carried out by the testing gallery at Buxton with regard to a disrupter rather than an explosive, a carbon dioxide disrupter tested by the Research Board, which gives promise to the mining industry of great results in the disruption of coal rather than the explosion of coal, without the same danger of causing explosions by fire. I understand that it is a metal cylinder filled with liquid carbon dioxide. It has a heating chamber inside lit by a detonator or fuse, and disrupts instead of explodes. Can the Secretary for Mines give me any information as to whether experiments on these lines are being continued. Obviously, from the point of view of safety in the mines, this is an experiment which gives promise of providing greater safety in mines than has hitherto been the case.

12 m.

I should like to know whether the increased cost of testing and research is mainly due to the salaries of the personnel, or whether it is mainly due to the material required for experiments. I put it in that way to ascertain whether any increase is being made in the research staff at Buxton or elsewhere for the furtherance of safety in mines by these experiments. I appreciate very much the amount of work that is done under the superintendence of the Department in regard to explosions and research for safety in mines, and I would never grudge or criticise the expenditure of money in that direction.

In addition to the sum required for testing and research, I note that a further sum of £751 is required for salaries, wages and allowances. I suppose that increase has been given to the inspectors.

The House has decided that this is a question for the Treasury and not for the Mines Department.

Am I to understand that I cannot deal with the work of the Department under this heading?

No: This part of the Supplementary Estimate relates to the increase arising out of the bonus, for which the Mines Department is not responsible. That comes under the Treasury Vote. The question that has been asked was whether this was an additional sum for the bonus.

Is the Mines Department taking precautions with regard to the personnel for research purposes? In the Service Departments there are trained men, military and civil, who have had lifelong experience with explosives. At the Royal Arsenal there is a very important research Department which deals with every kind of explosive, and not merely from the military point of view. They investigate all types of explosives, detonators, etc. Unfortunately, we see each Government Department getting into a watertight compartment and setting up its own staff. Here we have the Mires Department—

The hon. and gallant Member is pointing out that in regard to explosives the Royal Arsenal is doing work similar to that of the Mines Department.

Does the Mines Department take advantage of all the systems that have been tried out? Otherwise, there will be great waste of Government money in covering ground which has already been covered and obtaining knowledge already in the possession of other Departments.

On a point of Order. Are we to be allowed to discuss the methods adopted at Woolwich Arsenal?

I find great difficulty in following the hon. and gallant Member for Louth (Lieut-Colonel Heneage), but I am anxious to do him every justice. I understand that he is asking the Mines Department if their system of testing is similar to that employed in Woolwich Arsenal, in relation to explosives.

If hon. Members opposite would leave it to you, Mr. Young, to decide whether I am in Order or not, considerable time would be saved. I want to know whether the system in the Mines Department is not a wasteful one in this respect, that they are not taking advantage of the knowledge already obtained by other Departments, or whether they are taking advantage of the work of other Departments. I see the First Lord of the Admiralty in his place, and we should be interested to know if the results of experiments carried out in his Department are communicated to the Secretary of the Mines Department. This knowledge is either practical or mathematical, and I understand from reports in the papers that a great deal of the ground already covered in the Royal Arsenal is being re-traversed by the Mines Department. If that be so, I submit that this Vote is a mistake. I ask that we shall not set up in the Mines Department a separate explosives research section such as we have already under the Home Office, when this work might just as well be centralised. We have explosives departments in the Admiralty, the Army and the Air Force, as well as in the Home Office, and now, apparently, we are to have another in the Mines Department.

I hope that hon. Members opposite will pay great attention to what has been said by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Louth (Lieut.-Colonel Heneage) because during his time of service in the Army, my hon. and gallant Friend was a great expert on the subject of explosives, and his observations on that matter should be treated with all respect. [Interruption.] There seems to be an explosive atmosphere in the Committee, but I hope hon. Members will not object if I address some questions to the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Estimate. [Interruption.]

It is sometimes very difficult for me to follow the speakers owing to these interruptions. Unless I can hear the speakers, I am not in a position to determine whether the speeches are in order or not.

The hon. Gentleman in charge of the Estimate—whom we congratulate on the length of his speech on this occasion—went through the various items so quickly that I could not gather exactly what he meant until he concluded by saying that his Department had spent no additional money. That statement showed a complete misapprehension of the position. The hon Gentleman's Department has spent a considerable sum of extra money; it has also received a considerable amount more than was anticipated in Appropriations-in-Aid, and the net result, of course, is that the hon. Gentleman comes to the Committee for a token Vote of £10. But to say that the Department has not spent any additional money is quite inaccurate, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will not continue under that impression. The additional sum required is £1,321 and a little error has crept into the statement in the Estimate which I should not like to go upon the records uncorrected. The work of testing and research, I understand used to be done in Rotherham, but through some unforeseen circumstances the work there came to an end and the research was then carried out by the Mines Research Board. The Estimate states under Subhead E that "consequently the number of tests to be carried out is greater than was anticipated." I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the word "consequently" in this connection is quite ridiculous. It does not follow that, because the location of the work was changed, there was necessarily more work to be done. I should also like to ask what is the revised test as compared with the original form of test, and how far is there co-operation between the Mines Research Board, under this extended system of testing explosives, and one of the most important scientific departments under our administration, namely the National Physical Laboratory! That is a department which is devoted to experimenting on difficult and abstruse scientific subjects, and it seems to me that it should be the duty of the Secretary of the Mines Department to consult with them about the revised test. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] Surely, hon. Members opposite recognise that the whole point of a Supplementary Estimate is that information may be elicited and that there are Members here, representing agricultural constituencies, who have not the a priori knowledge of this subject possessed by the hon. and gallant Member for Louth (Lieut.-Colonel Heneage).

I wish to ask the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Vote what kind of collaboration, if any, exists between his Department and the Service Departments in this matter—no doubt the First Lord of the Admiralty will be able to say off hand—and also how far there is collaboration on these scientific subjects with the National Physical Laboratory? I believe that it is through the scientists attached to that Department, that we shall get the most satisfactory results. That Department has its feelers out in every scientific and technical institution in the country. It has the widest possible scope for telling the world when it has made successful investigations and the result of its applied scientific knowledge. So, when the hon. Gentleman talks about a revised test of explosives, it would be as well to consult not only the Mines Research Board, the people at Rotherham, whoever they may be, but this great public Department, which was set up for the very purpose of scientific investigation. I hope that he will be able to tell me that this has been done. I should like to know what tests are made in explosives, because most tests in explosives end up in an explosion, and that is the end of it. [Interrup-tion.] The hon. Member for Leith (Mr. E. Brown) tells me that researchers sometimes disappear. I hope that that will not be the fate of the hon. Gentleman, the Secretary for Mines, or any of his Department. [Interruption.] It is very difficult to get on, because there are so many interruptions around me. Apparently, this is a comic subject, but I should never have thought that anything to do with the Department of Mines was in the least comic—not even the Secretary. When the hon. Gentleman asks for £1,300 and blandly tells us that he is not spending any more money, it is evident that he has lost control with the financial responsibility of his Department. I hope that he will explain that statement, so that no inaccuracies appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT to-morrow. Will he also tell me how it is that under Appropriations-in-Aid—and I have no doubt that he is fully aware of the system of accounting which brings them into the Vote—there appears the recovery of the salaries of two officers seconded to other Departments. What are these officers doing, and how does it come about that the Mines Department, which is a very technical one and very unlikely, one would have thought, to lend officers to other Departments, is able to second these officers?

I have on a number of occasions in Committee objected to token Votes, and I cannot remember an occasion when objection was more justified than it is new. We are asked to regard this merely as a Vote for £10, but, if hon. Members will look at tile Appropriation-in-Aid, £1,321, and turn to the next page, and see the details, they will find that this is argely attributable to expenses saved in officers seconded to other Departments. That causes a much more material point than appears at first sight, because we are not only asked to incur what is an initial expense of £1,321, which is the amount stated on the Paper if you include the Appropriation-in-Aid, but we are asked to pass a Vote for twice that amount, as far as we know, because, if hon. Members turn to Paper 73, which contains a complete list of the Supplementary Estimates, including the Estimate which is before the Committee, they will find no mention of this Appropriation-in-Aid shown as a debit on any other account.

If that is not debited to one of the other Supplementary Estimates we are, in fact, passing a Vote for £2,600 odd instead of a token Vote. If the House of Commons is to have any respect for its duties, it should pay serious attention to every one of these Votes. I should not be speaking here to-night if I had not a profound conviction that every one of these matters ought to be properly analysed. The House must not neglect its primary function of being the guardian of the public purse. Cannot the Secretary for Mines give us a plain statement telling us where this £1,321 is debited to another account and brought into the sum of £12,000,000, which is the total of all these Supplementary Estimates. If he can say it is debited as an extra item of expenditure to a certain Vote named in this long list, I shall say that satisfies me. If he cannot answer that question, or if there is no answer, then I should say there has been deliberate deception of the House of Commons, because we should really be asking for £2,600.

I appeal to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to give some attention to this point. My right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne (Mr. Leif Jones) and I have raised this point in his absence on several other Votes. We find here appropriations-in-aid amounting to £12,000. Do we get those sums back on the debit side of the Consolidated Fund? I cannot trace them. If we do, then I have no more to say. But surely the old system under which appropriations-in-aid consisted only of small sums received inside the Departments was a wiser and sounder practice? This is really an estimate of moneys—I will not say expenditure—amounting to £2,632. It appears in the total as a sum of £10. That may be an indication that large sums of money—and the amounts are growing larger and larger as the practice extends—totalling millions in the end, are withdrawn from any chance of criticism. The Financial Secretary shakes his head, and I am pleased he does so. Then, if these things are put down, some of us would like to know where to find them. We have done some research for them, and we feel concerned. This is not a trivial point, because it may be possible for millions of money to be withdrawn from any effective public discussion.

I would like to direct the attention of the Minister and the Committee to Item E. He explained just now that he gets certain receipts—charges certain fees—in connection with the testing of these explosives. The examination into the value of these explosives is most important work from the point of view of the safety of the mines and I should like to know whether the expenditure is covered by the receipts he gets from the fees. There are various types of mines, not only the coal mines of which hon. Members opposite are no doubt thinking, and I would like to know whether these tests of explosives take into account the needs of all the mines in the country. Do they, for instance, cover the explosives used in the tin mines in Cornwall, in the granite and slate quarries, and other quarries from which road-making materials are obtained? We seldom get any opportunity of hearing anything about any section of the mining industry except one—the biggest section, I admit, but not the oldest. Another point which has struck me is this. We have in the West Country some of the best and most up-to-date factories for the making of explosives, and these products are exported all over the world. If these explosives are tested by the Goverment and approved for use in this country, would it not be possible to mark them in such a way that they would be known throughout the world as Government-tested products? That might prove a very useful advertisement for the Mining Department and for the trade in general.

I should like to join with my hon. Friend the Member for Leith (Mr. E. Brown) in a very strong protest against this growing habit of building up an Estimate in the way in which it has been built up to-night. It is most confusing, and, although it may not deceive hon. Members on this side, there must be hon. Members who do not realise that accounting of this kind is not in the best interests. I do not want to deal with Clause C for it is only the natural extravagance which grows with the present Government in power. I wish to draw attention to Item A of this particular Vote because under this Item, as already pointed out, you have a sum which normally should go to another year; but I am not protesting against finding this money, because I wish to blame the Board of Trade or the Minister of Mines.

We had a discussion on this question on Thursday, and it was understood then that no subsequent discussion would take place.

I am sorry that I have forgotten that we have had a Ruling on this matter which rules out further discussion on this point. I will content myself with saying how sorry I am that this particular Vote has been made more difficult than it need have been because of the inefficiency of the Chanceller of the Exchequer.

May I ask the hon. Gentleman one question? Does that work include the testing of explosives? I attended a meeting upstairs with a number of miners, and a demonstration was given which appeared to me, and appealed to practical members, as a very efficient method. We were told that an application was made for a Departmental test. Has any money been spent on such tests?

The Research Station at Sheffield is included in the expenditure of the Mines Department, and very great care and attention is being given to all new apparatus and new inventions so as to provide, if possible, security and safety for the miners in the mines. No step is being left untaken to provide gas detectors so as to make the mines more safe than at the present time. Many of the questions in the Debate have been respecting the explosives section of this Vote, and I would say that there has been a new form of test, constituted on the advice of an expert committee in connection with the Mines Department research work. Representatives of some of the Service Departments are engaged on that Committee, and no first-class expert is overlooked in the determination of these explosives. In connection with the charge of explosives used, the varying charges are now replaced by a uniform charge limit of 28 oz. There has been no weakening of the test. I want to say, that we ought to be proud of and thankful for the energy displayed by those in charge of the Buxton and Sheffield stations, in improving safety methods in connection with the mines.

I will not go into the Civil Service bonus, because it would not be in order, except to say that at the Mines Department there is very clean book-keeping and the extra bonus is to meet the change announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As regards the telephones, there have been additional inspectors in recent periods, and there has been a more effective use of the telephone. The new disrupter has been alluded to, and I may say that experiments are still going on. My hope is that some time they will find very good means whereby the terrible loss of a thousand lives in the mines and scores of miners injured each year may be reduced. The hon. Member who gave us the amusing interlude, must not have been in his place when I made the statement that the gross expenditure of the Mines Department is exceeded by £1,300. I hope I shall never in my life attempt to deceive anybody. I do not understand the details of the explosives test referred to, but I am certain our research department will include everybody they can and every method to get the best possible results. I want to express the hope that I was not unduly long in my few observations. I could have spoken an hour, but it would have been no use. I was saving the House a certain amount of infliction which at this time of night we do not desire. The hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) asked about the tin mines and the testing of explosives in the tin mines. Tin mines and quarries do come under the Mines Department, and, of course, from that point of view, any necessary attention to these is given.

I could not say technically whether the tests are the same, but the tests are what are required for proper testing. [Interruption.]

After all, I am representing quite a different industry from what some hon. Members opposite represent. Could the hon. Gentleman let me know afterwards? Could he write and tell me? I feel sure he will do so. [Interruption.]

On a point of Order. Hon. Members on this side of the House wish to listen to the very interesting speech which the Secretary to the Mines Department is making. Could you, Mr. Chairman, ask his supporters to be a little less exuberant?

Would it not be better, before hon. Members opposite ask questions, that they should read the research works issued by the Department?

A point was asked respecting the two transferred officers. One has gone to the Inland Revenue Department and one has gone to the Ministry of Labour. I think the matter will be settled by amicable arrangement between the two departments, and that the Departments will get the benefit of their services. I say, quite frankly, that I do not know how it is worked out without inquiry.

I do not want to embarrass the hon. Member, but he stated that these two officials credited here have been debited somewhere. I do not want to press the question on him, but I do want to impress on the Committee that the matter should be looked into.

I will promise that it will be looked into. I am a Yorkshire-man, and I do like to see fourpence for fourpence. I think I have answered practically all the questions, and, if there are any points in connection with the research department, the mines works' department, or any other matter on which hon. Members want information, our experts will give them all the assistance they want.

rose in Ms place and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put"; but the CHAIRMAN withheld his assent, and declined then to put that Question.

I only wished to ask the Financial Secretary to the Treasury if he could answer the question.

I think the point of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) was a perfectly simple point. In these questions of Appropriation-in-Aid the real fact is that the Treasury has taken the means to have the fact most explicitly stated, and, if hon. Members will think it over, they will realise that no other means can be so explicit and clear for giving the House so much information. Whenever an item would appear in one account and it has been defrayed by another, the Treasury insists that it goes into the account from which it is abstracted by an Appropriation-in-aid. It might be asked why it appears in the other account. If this is an additional item for which the original Estimate did not suffice, of course a Supplementary Estimate would have to be provided to meet it; but, if it is sufficient to cover the service of an officer, the fact that he is attached does not appear, as there is a view to saving. Suppose, for example, that there is an amount available for the employment of an additional officer: There are two courses open. He might be taken as an extra man; that would be an extra charge on the Exchequer. Instead of that, they might be able to take him from another Department, and that would involve the actual saving of a man.

I am not quite clear about that. It is, in fact, the £1,300 odd that is credited to this account that appears in another account in some form or another? Is it in addition to another Supplementary Estimate? That is all I want to know. If it is replacing two men who have disappeared, then, of course, no account is required.

It is not brought into a Supplementary Estimate because in the Inland Revenue Department and in the Ministry of Labour, in which the two men have been transferred, there is sufficient provision to cover them, and, therefore, no Supplementary Estimate is required.

Question put, and agreed to.