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ICL Boulby Potash Mine

Volume 622: debated on Monday 27 February 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Griffiths.)

It is appropriate on this day, the 117th birthday of the Labour party, that we debate mining, miners’ welfare, health and safety and the issues around the Boulby potash mine in my constituency—a constituency, of course, that has a proud heritage of mining in East Cleveland, primarily around the ironstone mines and villages such as Guisborough, Slapewath, Skelton, Boosbeck, Loftus and Brotton, to name but a few—and the history of men such as Joseph Shepherd, who was the first Cleveland miners association union representative back in the 1870s, and who helped to establish the Labour movement in those mines among the Primitive Methodists in East Cleveland and north Yorkshire, who primarily made up the workforce there. As the Labour party is a party of miners, it is appropriate today that they be talked about on our party’s birthday.

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate an issue that matters to me and so many of my constituents. I hope to raise questions about the recent accidents on site, which my constituents still need answers to, and to highlight the challenges facing the mine in the future.

Mining has both a proud past and, I believe, a viable future in East Cleveland. Ironstone mining was, as in other areas of the country, the original foundation of the local economy in East Cleveland. The booming mines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries drew in workers from across the country and led to the struggle for improved wages and conditions that shaped the Labour tradition of which we on these Benches are humble representatives today. However, mines from Charltons to Skinningrove closed throughout the last century due to the quality of the ironstone they were mining and imports coming in that had less sulphur, but mining was not lost and Boulby potash mine in my constituency is still in operation.

Despite this decline, my constituency still currently, and proudly, has the highest number of miners in the UK. The potash mine at Boulby has been an important part of East Cleveland’s economy since it was sunk in the 1970s by ICI. Families’ destinies have been dependent on mining, and Boulby mine at its height employed over 1,000 people in high-paid and high-skilled jobs—jobs that, unfortunately, are all too rare in the Tees valley.

About 80% of the mine’s workforce live within a 12 mile radius of the site. It is not only the people of East Cleveland that the ICL site serves; it also serves this country’s farmers. Potash is mainly used in fertilisers, and the Boulby mine supplies over half of the UK’s potash. However, the site is not without its problems, and I want to go into the history of the safety concerns, some of which are recent.

The mine’s safety record is chequered to say the least. It is a deep mine and is a dangerous place to work. Some places go two miles under the North sea and temperatures can be as high as 50°C. There is huge heavy equipment, with massive vehicles, and in the potash section it is a very different type of mining from the traditional methods of coal mining where seams are cut out of the coal seam. Potash is a much harder material, especially polyhalite, the new product that Boulby is mining.

In 2007, a worker at the mine, Darren Compton, was killed by a falling rock. In 2012, an employee at the mine suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung after a hose burst and threw him against a skip. Months later, an employee was seriously injured by falling debris. In 2013, the site’s mines rescue technician and co-ordinator was fired after failing to ensure that enough employees were trained rescue workers and that safety equipment such as breathing apparatus was working. Worryingly, he claimed at his tribunal that this was “accepted practice” at the site and that he was unaware of the safety requirements he had broken.

In 2014, there was an underground collapse in the mine, but fortunately no one was hurt. In 2015, some 220 redundancies were announced and 140 contractors’ posts were abolished. In February 2016, a miner tragically took his own life in the mine. In April, an underground fire at the mine hospitalised seven employees. In June, a popular employee who was well respected by colleagues and managers, John “Richie” Anderson, was killed in a gas blow-out on the site. In August, a further 140 redundancies were announced, with more planned, and a contractor on the site was airlifted to hospital after suffering life-changing burns following an electrocution. In December, a mine tunnel flooded, although thankfully no one was injured.

The mining industry is difficult and dangerous, as the miners at Boulby know only too well. As these examples show, the mine’s safety record is not an unblemished one, and the nature of the mine—the second deepest in Europe—makes it a difficult place to work and manage. It will continue to be difficult. Everyone—the workers, their families, ICL and myself—wants the mine to be prosperous and to succeed, but there are actions that must be taken on these safety issues by both ICL and the Government in order for that to happen.

In one particular case, fire broke out underground. I cannot go into detail, because legal action is taking place, but the men involved escaped with their lives only due to their own actions. There was no health and safety process in place. Many of the men had written their wills because they believed that they would not leave that mine. At some point, I would like to go into more detail about that case. I cannot do so now because of the legal action that is pending, but I wanted to put this on the record.

Workers at the mine must ultimately have confidence in the safety procedures that are in place, and they should be able to have a say when they have concerns. ICL must have a closer working relationship with the unions that represent workers at the plant, especially in relation to safety at the site. Giving the unions input into the process will build confidence in procedures and give workers a better opportunity to voice any concerns.

There are also questions that the Government and, in particular, the Health and Safety Executive must do more to answer. How have the recent redundancies affected safety at the mine? I understand that work patterns have been altered and lengthened to compensate for the redundancies, and the Health and Safety Executive accepts that longer shift patterns increase the risk of errors, accidents and injuries. I am also concerned that some of the workers injured in these incidents have returned to work before they are fully recovered due to the inadequate sick pay they receive while off work, thus potentially increasing the risk of further accidents. Furthermore, the Government need to revisit the funding that they give to the HSE, especially in relation to COMAH—control of major accident hazards—site workplaces. However, even if those steps are taken and safety at the site is improved, more needs to be done to ensure the future of ICL and the good jobs that it provides.

The main threat to the future of the mine is the falling potash price. It has roughly halved since 2012, although prices stabilised and recovered slightly from the end of 2016. ICL has taken action in response to the change in prices, slowing potash extraction and turning to the innovative product polyhalite and other minerals vital to fertilisers. ICL is competing with other producers of potash around Europe and the world. Some, such as Russia and Belarus, are not concerned about fair trade and have sought to undercut the world market. Others, such as China, use their power to force prices down.

As with so many British industries competing in a globalised world, the UK potash industry’s future will depend on our post-Brexit trade arrangements. I have said before in this House that although I welcome the Government’s commitment to free trade, I am concerned that their desire to remove trade defence measures post-Brexit will leave our industries exposed not to free competition—which all industries understand is a reality of a globalised world—but to unfair dumping and market manipulation. We have seen that the Government are unwilling to stand up to China on steel dumping and that they seem willing for industries to pay the price for any trade deals post-Brexit. I hope that they will consider the miners of East Cleveland and ensure that any new post-Brexit trade deals provide the ICL Boulby potash mine with a level playing field on which to compete.

As well as the supply of potash, polyhalite, and the rock salt used to grit our roads, the mine is important for several cutting-edge research projects via the Boulby Underground Laboratory. The mine is 1200 metres deep, meaning that it is among only a handful of locations that offer the opportunity to conduct ultra-low background and deep underground projects, including experiments relating to dark matter and radioactive substances. As well as contributing to our position as world leaders in science research, that could have applications in the defence and environmental industries. Indeed, given the depth of the mine and its closeness to Hartlepool nuclear power station, the site has potential to be used for a joint American-British defence project on the monitoring of nuclear proliferation and potentially threatening states.

The ICL Boulby potash mine is not just the only remaining part of East Cleveland’s proud mining tradition, but a business that provides well-paid jobs to my constituents. However, it has challenges, most obviously and urgently around safety. The loss of John “Richie” Anderson and the hospitalisation of other workers in the mine demand further action by ICL and the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that everything is being done to keep the people of East Cleveland safe. While the fall in the pound has no doubt helped potash exports, Brexit also poses challenges, not least because it has the potential to increase the mine’s exposure to unfair international competition. There are opportunities in linking the mine’s future to a sector plan for the agriculture sector as part of an industrial strategy, strengthening protections against unfair trade post-Brexit, and potentially improving market conditions. I hope that the Government will do everything they can to help my constituents, whose communities are so linked to the future of Boulby potash mine.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing this debate on such an important matter and on his work, which I read as part of my preparation for this debate, over several years to draw attention to some of the issues that he has raised tonight, notably the worrying health and safety record of the Boulby mine over recent years. I will return to health and safety later on.

The Government recognise the importance of the potash industry to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and to the wider region. It is inextricably woven in the industrial fabric of the north-east but, as he said, the Boulby mine has faced difficult market conditions in recent years. Revenues and profits in the industry have been hit by low global potash prices, mostly as a result of greater competition in the global market, but some of that competition has not been what we would call free and fair. According to analysis by the market experts, IBISWorld, exports currently form more than a quarter of the industry’s revenue, so UK miners are exposed to global price volatility. The situation has been exacerbated by over-supply, which is unlikely to go away in the short term.

The job losses at the mine since 2014 have clearly come as a major blow to the employees concerned, their families and the communities in which they live. The rapid response service has delivered a number of redundancy briefing sessions to Boulby employees to help get workers back into employment as quickly as possible. In addition, the National Careers Service delivered support with CV writing, digital job searching, interviewing skills, and one-to-one appointments for rapid response funding applications.

However, with the production of polyhalite emerging as a key product of the UK industry, output from the UK is expected to expand in the next five years. I am pleased that ICL, which operates the Boulby mine, is now planning over the next five years and beyond to expand its output of polyhalite—a naturally occurring and highly sought after form of potash seen as a superior fertiliser. I understand that Boulby and the areas to the south have a near monopoly on this mineral resource, and I hope that that will be a great advantage for the area in the coming years. In fact, polyhalite is expected to overtake potash as the key product of the industry after 2018, and I hope ICL’s long-term commitment will result in a brighter long-term future for the mine and its employees.

The Minister is correct that the industry is looking at polyhalite overtaking potash as the main product to sell to the market. Polyhalite is an incredibly hard material and is much more difficult than potash to mine. Extra help to market the product is therefore needed as the industry adapts to it. Has the Minister taken on board my comments about how polyhalite can be incorporated into the industrial strategy and marketed as an industrial product to the world’s agricultural producers?

I certainly have taken that point on board. I appreciate that polyhalite is mined only from a layer of rock more than 1,000 metres below the North sea, below the potash seam at the Boulby mine, making it very much more difficult to access. I would welcome the industry’s contribution to discussions on how the industrial strategy that we are developing with the north-east in mind could benefit this emerging sector. It is a challenger sector and very much deserving of our attention as we roll out the industrial strategy.

I have quite a lot of information, so I will be selective. I was shocked by what I read about the health and safety concerns. I have spoken to the Health and Safety Executive, and we have a representative among the officials in the Box this evening who has travelled down from Bootle for this debate.

The Government take health and safety at work very seriously and fully support the HSE’s efforts to ensure that Great Britain remains one of the safest places to work in the world. There have been six significant incidents at the mine in the last two years—although, as the hon. Gentleman says, there is a longer record of safety concerns—resulting in the fatality he mentioned, three serious injuries and 14 workers being placed in potentially life-threatening situations. The HSE has found inadequate risk assessments, poor procedures and a failure to implement procedures designed to tackle the root causes of the problems.

I take this opportunity to express my heartfelt condolences to the family of Mr John Anderson, who was tragically killed while working at the mine on 17 June 2016, and to the other workers who have been injured or distressed as a result of accidents or incidents at the mine in recent years. All the incidents have been, and some are still being, thoroughly investigated by the HSE’s mines inspectors, whom I know the hon. Gentleman has met, and the HSE has called on additional specialist input, such as on human factors, where necessary. I assure the miners that the appropriate action either has been taken or will be taken. Should the HSE’s current investigations provide evidence of the management’s actions falling short of legally required standards, the HSE will not hesitate to prosecute ICL. Indeed, I believe that the HSE is preparing to launch prosecutions relating to the trapping incidents in April 2015—that is one example.

The HSE and the industry will continue to work together to improve safety performance. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the role of trade unions, which I understand have been very constructive and very dedicated to improving safety standards, and they will be a vital partner in that process.

We cannot go into detail on the cases because they need to be taken through the official legal channels before we can speak about them in any way. My main concern is that, due to the pending legal action, the sick pay period ran out for the miners involved in these cases and they felt forced to go back to work in order to have an income. My worry is that some of those miners may have been in a state of post-traumatic stress, placing other workers in potential jeopardy, but had to go back to work because they are the breadwinner for their family. Will the Government review the legislation to ensure that, pending the legal action, workers in such workplaces can seek sick pay for an elongated period?

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable request. I cannot give him a direct answer from the Dispatch Box, but I am certainly prepared to take that request back to the Department and ask officials to review the matter. I shall write to inform him of any progress I am able to make on that issue. He describes a bad situation being made worse, potentially putting others at risk; that seems to be something we ought to review.

The health and safety law that covers underground mining was brought up to date by the Mines Regulations 2014. All the previous relevant law, some of it 60 years old and drawing from even earlier requirements, was modernised and replaced without reducing any necessary protections. That was no small task, and would not have happened without the co-operation of the industry and, as I just mentioned, the unions representing Boulby’s workers. The law is now more straightforward and, together with the associated guidance, which was also modernised, duty holders should be aware of and understand what is expected of them when it comes to operating a safe mine.

The new law places clear duties on mine operators to ensure that sufficient and effective systems for the management and control of risks are in place and being followed. We now have a single set of regulations to cover the major hazards associated with underground mining, including ground control, shafts, winding equipment and operations, inrushes, and fire and explosion, as well as effective arrangements for escape and rescue if controls fail. Those hazards are far from new, and they are well understood by the underground mining industry. As such, it is unacceptable that some standards have not been applied consistently in the management of the Boulby mine. The Government and the HSE will work together to ensure that duty holders recognise the potential for those hazards causing major harm and that they control the associated risks.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the underground fire. I understand that improvement notices were served on Cleveland Potash Ltd, after which improvements to underground safe havens and improved communications facilities and water availability have now been put in place.

The HSE has an intervention plan for every underground mine in Great Britain, and each reflects the specific inherent hazards and the mine’s previous health and safety performance. The Boulby plans for 2016-17 and 2017-18 reflect the outcomes of the investigations into the recent incidents. HSE inspectors will base their regulatory interventions and their oversight of the mine’s health and safety performance on those plans, which I know that the hon. Gentleman has discussed with the HSE.

I have probably said all that I can about the health and safety aspects of running this mine. As I have told the hon. Gentleman, I have talked to the HSE about the issues that he has raised, and also about my concerns when I read the individual case notes of some of the people who have had terrible injuries and who have been in fear of their lives. It was clear to me from reading those notes that several of the incidents could have been avoided, and certainly could have been reduced in their effect had proper and robust safety procedures been observed and implemented at all times.

I was encouraged by the response that I received from the HSE with regard to new management at the mine as it has a far more robust outlook and is well informed by the HSE, the trade unions and the hon. Gentleman himself. I think that we can be optimistic that the future of Boulby mine, both economically and, even more importantly, from a safety perspective, will be brighter. We must get everything right for the even more risky accessing of the new mineral source, which has so much to offer his constituents and the mining community that is so important to his part of the world.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.