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Houghton Main Colliery (Explosion)

Volume 893: debated on Friday 13 June 1975

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(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement about the explosion at Houghton Main Colliery, South Yorkshire, in which a number of miners are reported to have lost their lives.

At 7.15 p.m. last evening an explosion from a cause as yet unknown took place at the Houghton Main Colliery, resulting in a large fall of roof. About 200 men were underground at the time. Work was stopped immediately and the pit evacuated, and I am glad to say that the great majority of the men managed to get to the surface unharmed. I am deeply distressed to have to inform the House that five men were killed and another man was badly burned and is in hospital. I am sure that the whole House will wish to extend its wholehearted sympathy to the relatives, friends and colleagues of the five men who were killed and the injured man, and to pay tribute to the rescue teams, who have in the best traditions of the industry done all that could be done in what I understand were most difficult conditions.

The accident will be fully investigated by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Mines and Quarries with the co-operation of the National Coal Board and the trade unions concerned.

I am deeply grateful to the Minister for making that statement. May I be associated with the message of sympathy which has been sent to the relatives of the bereaved men and with the message of help and sustenance to those who have been injured? May I also express my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and other Ministers in the Department, who, I understand, have hurried to the pithead to be present and to convey the feelings of this House to the relatives of those concerned?

Is my hon. Friend aware that I am pleased to hear that there will be an investigation?

At this point may I pay tribute to the men for the orderly way in which they left the mine? I am told that there was no lack of volunteers for rescue work among those who had been evacuated from the mine.

Is my hon. Friend aware that I would expect a statement from the Secretary of State for Energy as soon as possible but that I am grateful to him for making this statement at such short notice?

There are two Departments with responsibility in this area—the Department of Energy, of course, and my own Department, which is responsible for the Health and Safety Commission. As my hon. Friend said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is at the moment at the colliery, as is my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy. Also there are Derek Ezra, the Chairman of the National Coal Board, and Bill Simpson, the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission.

I join my hon. Friend in his remarks about the work of the rescue teams. It is voluntary work done by men trained to a high degree for work which calls for the utmost courage.

Is the Minister aware that the Opposition wish to be associated with his expressions of sympathy to the families of those who have lost their lives, and that we, too, congratulate the rescue teams, perhaps all the more since this is an area of the coal field which has had some other sad accidents in recent years?

Can the Minister say what form the inquiry will take, how it will be conducted and what plans there are? It may be too early for him to say, but some indication would be helpful to the House.

My information is that some of those who have been at the colliery in recent hours are of the view that an inquiry should take place. The formal responsibility for a public inquiry lies with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. He will make his decision, having considered the recommendations of the Health and Safety Commission. I can assure the House that if there is a request serious consideration will be given to whether or not a public inquiry is necessary.

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Liberal Bench, I join the expressions of sympathy to the next of kin of those who lost their lives and compliment not only the rescue services but also the courage of the development teams, which have the most dangerous tasks to perform, and also our colleagues who are at the coal face doing what they can to help.

I am obliged to the hon. Gentlemen for those remarks. It must be a very difficult decision for hon. Members to choose whether to be at the colliery or here. But we welcome the presence here of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall), who represents the constituency in which the accident occurred, and we know that he is here out of a sense of the need for the constituency to be represented on such an occasion. We know, too, that he will be quickly with his constituents as soon as this matter is concluded.

Will my hon. Friend accept that in cases like this it is very nice to hear expressions of sympathy, and, of course, I associate myself totally with them, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall)? However, we should also bear in mind, when there are other questions relating to miners and other heavy industrial workers who suffer on occasions like this, that we should have the same sympathy for them when they are in any struggle on the industrial front. Any investigation has to take into account the fact that in the mining industry, whether we like it or not, the chances of improving productivity are becoming more difficult every day because we are working thinner seams and because the geology is getting more difficult. Therefore, the chances of raising productivity are reduced as each day goes by. Therefore, any investigation must take into account the fact that in many cases the optimum has been reached regarding extra productivity and that the chances of accidents of this kind will be heightened unless additional safeguards are adopted along the lines that many of us have been suggesting from time to time.

I take very much the spirit of what my hon. Friend said. There is a price to be paid for many of the services provided for the country by those working in dangerous jobs. Although we at the House of Commons tend to be more conscious of this on special occasions when disasters of this kind are brought to our notice, we should have very much in mind when we discuss the conditions of those working in industries that this is part of the overall picture which has to be considered when determining matters of productivity and remuneration in those areas.