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Mining: Health and Safety

Volume 624: debated on Tuesday 28 March 2017

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

Seventy years ago, the Burngrange mining disaster happened in my constituency. It was, and still stands as, the worst accident in Scottish shale mining history. Fifty three men went down on shift on 10 January 1947, but only 38 came out alive. One miner’s body was brought up with the survivors, but 14 men were trapped behind the debris and the fire. The heat and power of the fire were all consuming. Hopes of any survivors faded fast as the hours passed. A total of 15 men from my constituency died in this tragic accident.

Earlier this year, the towns of West Calder and Seafield paid homage to their lost miners in moving tributes. The names were read aloud and stories told of the events by local schoolchildren who had spent time in class learning about what those men and their families had endured. Standing in West Calder square on that chilly January day hearing the children of Parkhead primary recounting the stories of the men of Burngrange was a powerful and beautiful tribute. I also pay tribute to Alan Tuffs and his team from the local area who had worked so hard to put together tributes and to bring the community together in commemoration.

I am proud to have the opportunity today to read again the names of the men who lost their lives working for their families and communities in an industry that is now marked by the bings of West Lothian that surround my constituency: John McGarty, 30, Limefield Avenue, West Calder, single; John Lightbody, 39, Gloag Place, West Calder, married, two of a family; Anthony Gaughan, 44, Parkhead Crescent, West Calder, married, two of a family; David Muir, 32, Parkhead Crescent, West Calder, single; George Easton, 48, Northfield Cottages, West Calder, married, three of a family; Henry Cowie, 28, Parkhead Crescent, West Calder, single; William Ritchie, 38, Old Rows, Seafield, married, three of a family; William Greenock, 50, Cousland Terrace, Seafield, married, three of a family; John Fairlie, 21, Old Rows, Seafield, single; Thomas Heggie, 27, Cousland Crescent, Seafield, married, two of a family; William Finlay, 56, Polbeth, married, three of a family; James McAulay, 56, Polbeth, West Calder, married with a large family; Samuel Pake , 24, New Breich, married, one of a family; William Carroll, 31, Seafield, married, two of a family; and David Carroll, 37, Old Rows, Seafield, married, five of a family.

I cannot imagine how the local mining community felt when the pit sirens wailed to warn of disaster, with the families running to the pit to wait for news—a wait that lasted for days before the families could claim the bodies of their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Today I pay tribute to them and their sacrifice. My own grandfather went down the pit as a coalminer just a few miles along the road as a fitter in Easton colliery, Bathgate. He, his father and two brothers all had serious accidents during their time as miners. He told me as I was growing up that accidents were just part of the job. I grew up with stories of him hauling himself through tiny crevices. At 5 feet 5 inches, he was a wee mannie, and was sent down all the nooks and crannies that the bigger men could not fit into.

My grandfather often told me of one accident, when the tow rope broke and a tub loaded full of coal was sent careering down the shaft, knocking him unconscious and leaving a serious gash in the back of his head. The truth was that he should never have been where he was, but it was a path well trodden by the miners around him. He survived fine, but never went that same route again. The scar on his head was an indelible mark that he showed me many times when I was a child. He said that it was a reminder to him that he was one of the lucky ones.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. There is a need for safety. Does she agree that it is essential that the Government work with the representatives of the Mining Industry Safety Leadership Group to provide a forum to develop, lead and implement a strategy for health and safety in the mining industry? Does she also agree that working with these groups is the best way to promote health and safety in mines throughout the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Working with members who work in that community is vital.

West Lothian Council’s local history library collected information about the disaster that became part of a community exhibition developed in conjunction with the Calder history group and Almond Valley Heritage Trust. Many communities across the UK do work like this, and it is vital that the young people in communities around us remember their industrial heritage.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate. May I take this opportunity to remember the 207 people who lost their lives at the High Blantyre colliery in what is now my constituency, on 22 October 1877? Many local women were suddenly widowed and children were left without a father in the worst mining disaster in Scotland’s history. Does my hon. Friend agree that, though historical, the tragedy provides a lesson from the past in why the health and safety of those working in mines should be paramount?

I join my hon. Friend in her tributes. She is a doughty champion for her constituents, and I share in all that she says.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. The keynote in her speech is that we must never forget the sacrifices that people made. It is important that children and others living in these communities in later years understand what happened before them. This year is the 60th anniversary of the Kames colliery disaster in my constituency, in which 17 men lost their lives in an underground explosion. I pay tribute to those guys and their families. It is very important that communities never forget.

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to those lost in his constituency.

I welcome such fitting tributes to men and to the families they leave behind, as they will remain a sober reminder to us all for generations to come of the sacrifices that those men made on that day in January 70 years ago. The five shale bings—or the five sisters, as they are famously known locally my constituency—and the bings of Broxburn were recently serialised by BBC Scotland, and are the indelible marks on the West Lothian landscape that remind us of our industrial past. In constituencies across the UK there are reminders in museums and galleries, such as Mill Farm in West Lothian and the Lady Victoria colliery in Newtongrange, which I visited as a youngster when my grandfather was terminally ill with a tumour. I remember going home to ask my mum whether she thought he would be well enough to visit. He was not, but the stories that I brought home meant a great deal to him.

There have been thousands of deaths in mines over the centuries, but fortunately safety has improved. It has been 50 years since the last UK mining accident happened at the Cambrian colliery in south Wales on 17 May 1965, where 31 tragically lost their lives. However, as recently as May 2014, the worst mining accident in the 21st century killed 301 people in Soma, Turkey. I am sure many hon. Members remember the 29 men killed underground four years previously at the Pike River mine disaster in New Zealand. In November 2010, just seven months earlier than that, 29 of 31 miners on site at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, USA, were killed in an explosion. On 30 January 2000, the Baia Mare cyanide spill took place in Romania: 100,000 tonnes of cyanide-contaminated water broke into the River Somes, the River Tisza and the River Danube. Although no human fatalities were reported, the leak killed up to 80% of aquatic life in some of the affected rivers, which meant that the accident was hailed as the worst environmental disaster in Europe since Chernobyl.

Although our UK mining industry has had health and safety problems, we have learned a huge amount from accidents such as the one in Burngrange in my constituency. From the pit closures and attacks on the trade unions in the Thatcher era, and the year-long miners strike—it was strikes in Lanarkshire that eventually drove my grandmother’s family to Glasgow so that her parents could seek other work—we remember the miners today and always. As a direct result of that strike, mining is no longer as much a part of the industrial landscape, but health and safety is crucial for those left working in the industry, wherever they are in the world. We have come a long way in health and safety improvements, but much more needs to be done, not just in mining but in other dangerous industries such as the oil and gas industry.

Many went from our pits into other industrial work such as oil and gas. It is important to remember that men and women in those industries work in some of the most challenging environments in the world. Health and safety is paramount. In fact, one such worker who followed that path was Mike McTighe, the father of my office manager, Stephanie. He worked in the Bilston Glen pit in Edinburgh for many years and was the last of a famous breed of coalminers in Scotland who moved on to work in oil and gas. He retired only a few months ago. He told me recently how he was once caught in a roof fall in a pit. He said that, as terrifying as that was, going down the leg of an oil platform, when he was often alone, responsible for his own air supply and surrounded by many toxic gases, was possibly the scariest and most hostile environment he had ever been in.

I had my own experience of the importance of health and safety when I became involved in the emergency response to a helicopter going down off the coast of Shetland in 2013. The company I worked for in the oil and gas industry lost a colleague. I spent a lot of time with his family, and working with many people in other companies to review health and safety practices and emergency response, to do our best to ensure that such an accident could never happen again. The work and continued improvement of our Health and Safety Executive is vital. Piper Alpha stands as the worst accident in the North sea and in the oil and gas industry. Many lessons were learned, including by the HSE, which has continued its work.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the men and women, and indeed children, who have worked in the pits, in some of the most challenging environments on earth. Their work and legacy leave a mark on our landscape, in our lives and in our history. We must remember them.

What will the Minister and the Government do to ensure that UK communities blighted by the loss of those industries get greater investment and support to embrace an environmentally friendly and low-carbon future? It is a fact that, despite goals to become a low-carbon economy, our dependence on imported fuels is now at a level not seen since the 1970s. The UK is the only one of Europe’s five biggest energy users to be increasing its reliance on imported energy. Britain now imports four times as much coal as it produces. Coal and other solid fuels made up 10% of the UK’s energy imports in 2015, from countries such as Colombia, Australia and the USA, with Russia being our biggest import partner. We have to consider some of the health and safety practices in those countries and raise concerns about them. Some of those countries are subject to international sanctions. Ukraine, for example, provides close to half the coal we import, and Colombia has an ugly track record on human rights.

The company responsible for the bulk of our Russian imported coal is the Siberian Coal Energy Company, which exports 31 million tonnes of coal a year, according to its website, and nearly a quarter of that comes to the UK—its biggest single market, well ahead of China. Russia’s safety record is not without blemish, and several major mining accidents have happened there. Notably, the Ulyanovskaya—I hope Members will excuse my pronunciation—mine disaster of 2007 killed 106 miners. Just last year, a methane leak triggered two explosions in a mine near Vorkuta, where 26 people ultimately lost their lives. Over 60% of Russian coal is extracted in the Kuzbass region of Siberia, and the human rights of mine workers and villagers are violated daily, according to reports.

In Colombia, the health and safety track record is appalling. An explosion at the La Preciosa mine in Sardinata in January 2011 killed 21 people; another explosion at the same mine in February 2007 killed more than 30 workers. During the decades-long civil war, the Colombian coal industry has grown to the point where it now ranks as the fourth-largest exporter of power station coal in the world, behind Indonesia, Australia and Russia. According to the London Mining Network, the growth of the Colombian coal industry has come at a terrible cost, including the dispossession of communities and widespread human rights abuses against members of the mining workforce and residents. Coal has polluted not only the air and the water but the country’s politics, with credible reports of at least one coal company providing support for militias involved in human rights abuses.

We should not condone the dereliction of duty to the human rights of workers and families living in mining communities. While we still import coal, we should do it from responsible sources, and I ask the Minister to review our coal imports and the human rights and health and safety records of the countries those imports come from.

In addition, we should do much more to develop and support our renewables sector to meet our power needs. The Banks Group in my constituency is a surface mining, renewable energy and property firm. It is truly diverse, and it has a clear vision on the future of renewables. It does pioneering work on reclaiming and redeveloping land that has been used for mining, and it was responsible for the Northumberlandia restoration, which is also known as “The Lady of the North”. In partnership with North Lanarkshire Council, the innovative Connect2Renewables project will ensure a minimum of £69 million of local economic benefit for the area, while a £1.74 million jobs and training fund will support 400 to 450 local unemployed people into work, further education or workplace training. This sort of ambitious, forward-thinking and environmentally friendly initiative is essential as we work towards our low-carbon goals.

My final request of the Minister—I know I am asking a lot of her—is that she set up specific funds for communities in former coal and shale mining areas to help them adapt and provide for the future. A specific fund could help with the kind of work that has been done in my constituency to engage with local schools. Economically, a fund could and should support areas that have never recovered from having had their heavy industries taken away or damaged irreparably, and that got little or no support at the time from the then Conservative Government.

These communities have sacrificed more than they should have, and they have provided for the whole country. We owe them our gratitude and support, and I call on the Government to do all they can to make sure that those former mining communities thrive and develop new industries where the old ones once stood so valiantly.

I thank the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) for securing this debate and for her passionate speech on an issue that is important to her and her constituents, as well as to the Government and the House. It gives us the opportunity to recognise the bravery of those workers at Burngrange mine, who, in providing for their families and securing resources for our country, made the ultimate sacrifice.

The hon. Lady and her constituents have rightly marked the 70th anniversary of that appalling disaster with honour and dignity for the men who did not come home to their families on 10 January 1947. One of the most moving parts of the tribute she paid was when she read out not only the names but the ages of those who were impacted. We got an impression from that of how the disaster affected a whole community. Often, people are in such a job for life. The age range of 24 to 50 gives a sense of that, and it was a very moving part of her speech. She has done a tremendous job in paying tribute not only to all those who were killed or affected by the disaster, but to all those who work, and have worked, in the profession and the communities that support them. It is a rare occasion when we read out in this place the names of people killed in such tragedies, but it is very fitting that she has done so. I understand from the Clerks that the hon. Lady tried to get this debate to fall as close as she could to the anniversary of the disaster. Things never work out perfectly, but her constituents and many others will appreciate that.

Before I go on to talk about the UK’s safety record and other issues that the hon. Lady raised, I would like to touch on some of the international tragedies that have occurred. She mentioned some; sadly, there are many others. In 1995, 104 miners died after falling down a mine shaft in South Africa. In 2006, 65 coal miners were killed in a gas explosion in northern Mexico. In 2007, at least 90 were killed in Ukraine’s worst mining disaster. In 2011, 52 people were killed in south-western Pakistan after a gas explosion in a deep coal mine.

It is important that we remember that this an international issue because of the role of the Health and Safety Executive, which has considerable expertise. Some 50% of the inspectorate that looks after this issue, as well as others, have worked in the mining industry for much of their career, and they have ambitions to export their expertise. The HSE’s latest business plan shows that it is clearly trying to do more of that. We have a good record on this, and huge expertise. We can make a real contribution, particularly in developing nations where often when disaster strikes the situation is unimaginable. This is important work, and I encourage the HSE to do it. It is doing a huge amount already. Recently, for example, it has been leading some work on ventilation issues in Australia and on engineering safety in Russia; the hon. Lady particularly referred to that country.

I pay tribute, as the hon. Lady did, to all those others who step in when such disasters strike to provide support and expertise to the rescue and recovery operation. I am particularly proud of this because the combined international rescue services that are contributed to by the UK’s blue light services train and drill for such events annually in my constituency. Her debate affords me the opportunity to pay tribute to them as well.

Burngrange and other mine incidents led to the introduction of a great deal of legislation in the latter half of the 20th century. The official report on that explosion and fire contains a number of important recommendations for improving health and safety in mines, including instructions on the use of safety lamps; how explosives should be selected, stored, handled and used safely; and the need for adequate ventilation and sampling of a mine’s atmosphere. Health and safety regulation in this country has improved greatly over the past 70 years, learning from previous experiences in order to try to prevent, as far as possible, disasters and other incidents that can lead to loss of life, injury or ill health. At the time when the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 was introduced, there were 651 fatalities to employees; today, the number is 105. That is progress made, but clearly more still needs to be done.

In 2014, following an extensive review, the Mines Regulations 2014 replaced all previous legislation relating to health and safety in underground mines—some 45 sets of regulations and the relevant parts of two Acts of Parliament. Importantly, they provided a comprehensive and simple goal-setting legal framework to ensure that mine operators provide all the necessary protection for mineworkers and others from the inherent hazards in mines. The regulations contain requirements relating to the key organisational aspects of safe management of a mine and to the key physical hazards to underground mining, the principal major hazards of which are unique to that particular sector.

In addition to the industry-specific mines regulations with which mine operators must comply, there is the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002.

About 2,000 workers are still involved in underground mining and they deserve the highest standards of health and safety. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, often that will mean working in partnership with other organisations. I thank him for his intervention.

The Health and Safety Executive has a regulatory intervention plan for every underground mine in Great Britain, no matter whether it is still active or whether it is there for heritage and tourism purposes. That reflects the specific inherent hazards of mines and their previous health and safety performance. Those that bear the greatest risk and have the poorest record receive the most attention. Inspectors base their regulatory interventions on those plans, which are proactive.

I understand that the Scottish Parliament has tabled a motion to mark Workers’ Memorial Day—I do not know whether the hon. Member for Livingston will table a similar motion in this Parliament—on Friday 28 April, which affords us another opportunity to remember all of those who work in these important but dangerous industries, and to pay tribute to what they do and to those who have lost their lives.

I wonder whether at this point the Government representative could try to recall that those same miners that we are talking about, many of them the sons of miners who went down the pit, were the very people that the previous Tory Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, called “the enemy within”. We are talking about all those people who lost their lives, including the 81 in Creswell in my constituency who were consumed by flames and had to be locked in—they could not get them out—and the 18 people who fell down the shaft to their death at Markham colliery in Derbyshire. They were the same people that the previous Tory Prime Minister called “the enemy within”. I think at this moment it would be right and proper for this Government to say that that was not the reality about these people who went down the pit day after day. Surely this is the time to say so.

I hope that, in what I have said today and what I will go on to say, I have paid tribute to those people. My maternal grandfather was a miner. I have spoken about the hazards that people face in that and other professions. Without their service the country could not continue its industrial projects. We owe them a great deal. On the politics of these matters, the hon. Gentleman and I would probably disagree, but the purpose of the debate is to pay tribute to those who work in these professions and to remember those who lost their lives at Burngrange, in particular, and in other disasters around the world. I am sure that that will not have satisfied the hon. Gentleman—

I will move on to the other points that the hon. Member for Livingston has raised. Quite rightly, she touched on what Departments can do through their policies to encourage good practice, and to encourage other countries to take health and safety as seriously as we do. In my Department, which is responsible for the Health and Safety Executive, considerable opportunities come with the HSE’s ambition to export its good practice, and that is important. I will certainly ask my counterparts at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to write to the hon. Lady about specifically how it is developing its energy strategy to take into account the very valid points that she raises.

On the matter of regeneration for affected communities, I may be in danger of agreeing with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner). One thing that was not done well in the past was securing the regeneration of areas where industries on which entire communities had depended were collapsing. Where that happens, swift intervention and investment are required.

One of the privileges of my first ministerial post in the Department for Communities and Local Government was working with local enterprise partnerships on getting particular investment into such areas. Part of the recipe for success in rebuilding those areas was mining heritage. Many projects, whether they were about creating business parks around energy or creating a tourist offer, would come back to an area’s mining heritage. That ties in very well with the important points that the hon. Lady has made about heritage. We need to remember that heritage and give it the status that it should have as part of our nation’s history. I will also ask the Department for Communities and Local Government to write to the hon. Lady to update her on the specifics of the growth funding that has gone into former coal mining areas.

Just before the Minister closes, she may be aware that the UK Government pulled funding from the Coalfields Community Trust, although the Scottish Government still provide funding in Scotland. Is that not something that the Government should look at? My final point is about mineworkers who have survived. She may be aware that the Government take 50% of the annual returns from the mineworkers’ pension pot, and I suggest that the Government should reconsider that as well.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the trust, which was closed and wound up. However, other sources of funding were made available through the usual growth funding channels, and much of that funding has been directed into the communities that we are discussing. I know that, because I was at the Department looking at how those funds had been allocated. Whether we are talking about mining or other industries that are not providing the necessary support to communities across the UK, we need to have a strong plan and vision for those communities and what will replace those industries. We should not leave people without that.

The hon. Lady has made some very encouraging and positive points, and I look forward to receiving those responses. On the distribution of funds, does she consider it appropriate for the former mining communities to be considered alongside other communities for the city growth plans and deals? That seems to me to be an ideal criterion to apply in considering the distribution of funds, because the areas of worst deprivation and challenge are often outside city centres, such as those in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown).

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. If one aspect of what makes a community strong and economically viable is removed, other aspects—the education system, the ability to attract teachers and all sorts of things—start to become harder. It is absolutely vital, as I know from my own constituency, to have a clear vision for and proposition on how the economy will not only grow, but be stable. That may mean diversification, or a different approach to the strengths and assets a particular community has had, but that is the key to success. It is what attracts not only public money and investment, but private investment, which is what some of these communities need.

The Minister has failed to answer the point about the money that the Government take from the mineworkers pension scheme. Now there are no deep-mine pits left in Britain at all—just a few private mines and bit of open-casting—can we have an assurance that the Government will cease taking that money out of the pension scheme so the miners she is talking about get an even better pension?

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point that deserves a serious answer, but given the limits on me in this Adjournment debate, may I ask him to write to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Pensions?

I am sure I do not need to encourage the hon. Gentleman to keep going, but if he is not satisfied with an answer, he should write again. I am afraid that I am not able to add anything to what the Pensions Minister will already have told him.

Unless there are any other interventions, I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Livingston, who has done a great service to all those who lost their lives in this tragedy and to all those touched by it.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.