Gleision Mine Tragedy

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab) It is a pleasure, Mr Chope, to serve under your chairmanship.

On Thursday 15 September 2011, seven men left their homes and commuted to work at the Gleision pit in my constituency. Having drunk their morning tea, they moved underground just after 9 o’clock to labour on the number two Rhondda seam. Wearing high-visibility jackets and safety gear, they expected to work until 5 o’clock and then return to their families. Instead, at 9.45 am, a small explosion that they detonated led to the release in a matter of seconds of 3,000 tonnes of water into a shaft hardly 4 feet high. The exact sequence of events is unknown, but the mine manager, Malcolm Fyfield, was close to the inrush. Astonishingly, he was able to survive the torrent of water and climb through the breach hole, finally to emerge bloodied, having struggled out of another entrance to the mine.

Further from the breach, David Wyatt heard the roar from the coming torrent and ran until he was able to jump on a conveyor belt, which carried him to the main mine entrance, the water chasing him through the passage. There, he alerted his colleague, Nigel Evans, and the emergency services were called. Daniel Powell, another collier in the mine, was also lucky to escape after running from the inrush. Those three were the only men to survive. Charles Breslin, Philip Hill, Garry Jenkins and David Powell were crushed by the terrifying raging force of the flood. With nearly a century of mining experience between them, those colliers had laboured in mines across the Swansea, Neath and Dulais valleys all their working lives. Charles Breslin had returned from retirement for a stint down Gleision to earn extra money to complete the family home he was building.

In the hours immediately after the explosion, teams from across Britain came to the fore as emergency services from Dinas, Cwmgwrach, Glynneath and even Yorkshire rushed to help in a frantic rescue operation and the subsequent investigation. Down the mountain in Rhos community centre, the families of the trapped men gathered with community leaders in a 36-hour vigil until the miners’ bodies were eventually recovered and gradually identified, and everyone began to come to terms with the trauma, and the families with their stunned grief. Today, over three years on, we are no closer to being told by any of the key agencies or the justice system why Charles, David, Philip and Garry died.

This is not an exercise in finding someone to blame. There was a trial and the manager and mine owners were acquitted of manslaughter and corporate manslaughter respectively. Mining is inherently dangerous, but neither I nor the families who were present during the long hours of that sad vigil in Rhos community centre have been given answers as to why the accident occurred by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Health and Safety Executive or indeed the trial at Swansea county court earlier this year. I am therefore left to make my own judgment after careful assessment of the trial evidence and other inquiries.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. Can he say what happened at the inquest? Unfortunately, I have been involved with deaths in the mining industry all my life, and normally there is some indication from an inquest of how an individual died.

Mr Hain: My hon. Friend speaks with great authority as a former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers. The coroner’s inquest was convened and then adjourned, and has never been completed, which has left unanswered questions.

The Gleision tragedy was a chilling reminder of a death-strewn mining era long thought consigned to history, and of the fact that short-cut attitudes to health and safety can be fatal. It also revealed how erosion of the Mines Rescue Service could create greater tragedies in the future if we fail to address the formidable budget challenges that that key agency faces if it is to maintain its long and dedicated record on mining.

The first lesson is that employers must be responsible for their employees in a way that was obviously not the case at Gleision. Throughout its recent life, it seems there was illegal mining at Gleision, certainly in the decade prior to 2011. At the trial, Mr Justice Wyn Williams said that successive managers had read into health and safety regulations what suited their needs, failing to co-operate sufficiently with Her Majesty’s inspectorate of mines. Despite this, the mines inspectors confirmed that the mine plan from which the manager and the four men were working, even as they detonated that fatal blast, was accurate. The inspectors checked during the official investigation after the tragedy and found that, although Gleision had not been inspected in the 16 months prior to the accident—an attempt to do so had been foiled by bad weather—the survey conducted two months before in July 2011 by mines surveyor John Brosnan was up to date and sufficiently accurate.

Of course, the Management and Administration of Safety and Health at Mines Regulations 1993 made it incumbent on the mine manager or owner to inform the mines inspectorate of any major changes in working plans underground. The inspectorate relies on the mutual co-operation of the mine manager and mine owner to alert to changes in the faces that they seam, and it is more than likely that multiple Gleision managers before Malcolm Fyfield had failed to do that adequately and properly.

The entire legal framework of health and safety at work in Britain is sensibly based on a self-policing model, relying on companies and their executives to comply with and guarantee safety standards by keeping risk as low as reasonably practicable. It is clear to me that in the events leading up to the tragedy the regulations were not complied with. However, the most frustrating question, and the one that haunts us all, is: why were the four miners there facing death in the first place?

The day after the tragedy, having been escorted from Rhos community centre up the mountain to stand at the mine entrance amid rescue workers and police, the mines inspector showed me the same mine plan from which Fyfield and the men were working. It showed clearly that they were mining directly towards an area in the old mine workings marked “Old Central Workings and Underground Water”. I have the mine plan here. The mines inspector expressed his surprise at this, and there is still no explanation for why the decision to take that risk was made.

The exact source of the water—whether it was in the area marked on the plan I saw, only a few metres from where the men fatefully detonated their explosion, or somewhere else nearby—was hotly disputed during the trial. The fact remains that the water was indeed there, exactly as marked on the mine plan, and that it killed them. Mines inspectors investigating the accident afterwards confirmed that its presence coincided with markings on the plan I saw. Indeed, they were able to see the high tide mark previously reached by the water that subsequently raged torrentially through the breach.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing this sad debate to the Chamber today. Is it true that this is not a one-off, and that some of the regulations on water ingress into mines were developed because of tragedies such as this? There was one in the 1970s at Houghton Main in Yorkshire, when exactly the same discussions took place. That is one reason why the need to map out where water lay was built into the inspection regimes. That is why it is clear that plans should be checked regularly, and not just cast to one side.

Mr Hain: I agree with my hon. Friend. He also speaks with great authority as a former miner.

Mr Fyfield, who was the mines manager, is highly respected and experienced. He told the court that he went into the old workings to check for the presence of water marked on the plan and found none. Somehow, there was a catastrophic misjudgment. The water was indeed there, and it nearly killed him, just as it killed the four miners. Built into the regulations is a statutory procedure that could have prevented all this. A precautions against inrush scheme would surely have given the men an indication of the presence of the water. There can be no question but that it should have been implemented, because the Mines (Precautions Against Inrushes) Regulations 1979 demand that if miners are moving towards a suspected hazard, a PAI scheme be created.

These were all experienced miners, led by an expert and experienced mine manager, yet the Health and Safety Executive has not yet explained—neither has the trial evidence nor the verdict—why those crucial regulations were not followed. Whether motivated by cost-cutting, or simply the result of a cataclysmically mistaken judgment, the decision was taken to blast too close to the water, and four men died as a consequence, the manager only narrowly escaping, emerging so bloodied, severely injured and traumatised that he needed intensive hospital care to get back on his feet.

In 2011, the mines safety expert Dave Feickert claimed that it was possible to have a no-fatality mining industry in the UK, such was the strength of HSE regulations, yet at Gleision, those were ignored. In my view, that is the truth that should have been established by the trial and never was. Although the verdict is the verdict, it delivered neither justice nor accountability to the victims of the tragedy and their families. They have all been failed by the justice system and by the absence of a full coroner’s inquest. It was only through the immense efforts of the fantastic Mines Rescue Service, together with Walter Energy and the Unity mine, close to Gleision in the Neath valley, and which, unlike now, were fully operating at the time, that the bodies were recovered and the accident could be fully investigated.

After the tragedy in 2011, in an open letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I warned of three things. The first was that without proper review, the Mines Rescue Service would risk becoming so chronically underfunded that it would be unable to provide the stellar service to Britain’s mines that, following coal privatisation, it was set up to in 1996. Secondly, I warned that were the current funding arrangements to continue, the cost to British mining of the MRS would become prohibitive, unless it was subsidised by Government. Thirdly, I stated that both those factors would combine to reduce and diminish the vital mutually co-operative spirit that is at the heart of the Mines Rescue Service and the coal industry in Britain, irreparably changing them for the worse.

The coal industry has changed a great deal in the three subsequent years. Faced with increasing international competition and dwindling profit margins, more coal mines in the UK have had to shut down. The Mines Rescue Service has been forced to change its funding structure in order to carry on providing a service to British mines while not having its viability impinged on too badly. However, under new regulations, the few remaining mines in Britain will no longer be obliged to pay a levy to the Mines Rescue Service, and instead will have a commercial relationship with a suitable provider should a disaster occur.

The MRS has evolved to become a successfully run enterprise able to diversify and rely on fees from its other work. In 1996, the MRS levy on each mine was able to cover its core costs, but the relentless closure of British mines since means that the coal levy now accounts for only 11% of the Mines Rescue Service budget, and even that is predicted to drop to 7% next year. That clearly impacts on the capability of the MRS to carry out its vital mines emergency service. Indeed, I strongly suspect that the MRS centre at Dinas in the Rhondda valley may have to be closed and its facilities transferred perhaps to Mansfield in England, because there are no longer sufficient south Wales mines to fund it.

Since 1996, the MRS has not received a penny of support from the Government. In the heyday of British Coal, it had the resources to deliver a universal rescue service. Even after privatisation, mines paid the levy because it did not affect their profitability. Instead, a mutually co-operative understanding ensured that aid would come if an accident occurred in a mine. The MRS scheme covered the costs of funding when it was called into action, and additional costs fell to the mine or to nearby mines.

For three weeks after the accident, when the Gleision mine was investigated, the HSE became responsible for keeping the mine open because Gleision’s owners, MNS Mining Ltd, could not afford to do so. Under normal circumstances, the costs of investigation and rescue would be placed on the mining business in question. However, the finances of MNS were so precarious that that was simply not feasible. Such a scenario had never been encountered before by the Health and Safety Executive and the mines inspectorate, and they deserve a great deal of credit for ensuring that a full investigation was carried out despite experiencing budget cuts, yet they should not have been put in that position.

Although the MRS has a team of core rescue specialists, it relies heavily on the mutual co-operation of other British mines, which provide their own men to aid the rescue effort, as well as equipment and resources. In 2011, as I said, those were provided by Walter Energy and Unity, two mining companies nearby in my constituency, and the unsung heroes of the disaster. However, the rescue effort was much more fragile than it appeared. The co-operative ethos, which is the foundation of the MRS, is based on a pooling of fiscal and technical resources in the event of an accident, and was built on the foundations provided by the Coal Board’s central fund, yet Gleision clearly exposed flaws in the mutual co-operation model that were not envisaged when the scheme was set up.

The financial costs of keeping the mine safely open to enable South Wales police and the HSE to investigate fell on the shoulders of the HSE together with Walter Energy and Unity, which were also sacrificing men and equipment to investigators, and this was a heavy burden. By Friday 16 September 2011, the day after the tragedy, Walter Energy alone had covered costs of £77,645 for the recovery and investigation, yet by December had still received no recompense. Last year, it laid off over 100 men, and the Aberpergwm pit has since been on care and maintenance, as has the Unity mine, both victims of the falling price of coal, yet they were both essential to the rescue effort.

As a result of all that, if there were ever to be a future Gleision-type accident, both a rescue and a full investigation might not be feasible. When I was the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in 2007-08, the HSE’s budget was £215 million. By last year, it had been cut by £50 million, or a quarter, to £165 million. Unless the Government provide more money for mines rescue and the HSE, accidents in mining will be more frequent, as self-policing health and safety and self-funding rescue and investigation services are no longer viable or fit for purpose.

I was one of the many community leaders who, over those long hours, observed the heroic and dedicated efforts of mines rescue workers, supported by highly professional police officers, other emergency workers and mines inspectors. I am full of praise for all of them. None of us knew at the time that there was never a chance of rescuing the men who died, but at least their bodies were recovered, in dark, dangerous and filthy conditions. The families of Philip, David, Garry and Charles have conducted themselves with dignity and deserve enormous praise from all. They do not seek vengeance and scapegoats, and nor do I; all they have asked for is justice, but they have still not received that.

In his letter of January 2012, the Secretary of State assured me that lessons would be learned from the Gleision accident. We await the impending report by the Health and Safety Executive, and I trust it will not be constrained by the trial verdict, because if it is, the inspectors will not be able to reveal their professional conclusions, which I strongly suspect broadly coincide with mine.

The day of 15 September 2011 would have been an unremarkable day in the history of the Swansea valley had proper health and safety practice been followed. We still have no answers as to why Garry, Charles, Philip and David died, why they were heading straight for the water that killed them, and why no precautions against inrush scheme was implemented. The Gleision tragedy should not have happened; that is what makes it not simply a terrible accident, but a shocking, terrible scandal.

The Minister for Disabled People (Mr Mark Harper): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) for securing the debate. It is very helpful to be able to debate such issues in the House with the hon. Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), who are very experienced in these matters.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, it was a tragic accident on 15 September 2011 that resulted in the deaths of four miners: Charles Breslin, David Powell, Philip Hill and Garry Jenkins. I remember the events myself. My own constituency has a mining history. The last large pit closed in 1965, but there are a number of free miners who still work in small mines. As I said, I remember the events, and I can only imagine the heart-rending situation faced by the families. The right hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to them for all that they have gone through. It is obviously on their behalf that he raises these issues in the House.

I mention my constituency only because we will come on to talk about the changes to the regulations and the Mines Rescue Service. There are a number of small mines in my constituency. I have had the experience, thanks to an excellent constituent of mine, Rich Daniels, who is president of the free miners, of going down one of those mines and seeing how small mines operate. I have had the opportunity to talk to him about the health and safety challenges. My constituency has the same issues with the Mines Rescue Service and its viability, and putting in place alternative arrangements that would provide a safe and secure method of rescuing miners if a tragedy happened. I shall come on to that.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, the accident triggered a rescue operation of a type not seen before. There was immense commendation for all those who contributed to the efforts to save the miners. He was right to pay tribute to the emergency services, other mine operators and their staff, volunteer cave divers and many others. Tragically, it quickly became clear that the task was one of recovery rather than of rescue.

South Wales police assumed primacy from the outset, and the investigation was led by the police throughout, with technical and other support from the HSE mines inspectors and other individuals and organisations. The site investigation concluded when all reasonable lines of inquiry had been followed and closed. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, after the investigation concluded, the Crown Prosecution Service brought manslaughter charges against the mine manager and the mine owner. Those Members present will know that there was a three-month trial earlier this year. As the right hon. Gentleman said, it concluded when the jury delivered not guilty verdicts on both the mine manager and the corporate defendant—the mine owner. The decision of the court must be respected. Obviously, I cannot today—this would be inappropriate for a Minister—delve into and try to reopen the case.

However, I can say that, now the legal processes are concluded, the HSE is producing a report that will be published, and that will pull together in one place the details of the site investigation that it carried out and the lessons that can be learned for the future. I know that that is one of the things the right hon. Gentleman wants to ensure happens.

Mr Hain: The Minister will have noticed that I said, because I am worried about this, that the HSE report will be constrained by the trial verdict. I am worried that the HSE report will not be able to be as open as perhaps, for all I know, the mines inspectorate would like to be about its views on what really happened. Will he do whatever he can to try to ensure that that barrier, if it is there, as I suspect, is taken away?

Mr Harper: What the report can do is set out the results of the investigation. It can set out the facts that those who inspected with their professional judgment found in the mine. What it cannot do is rerun or revisit the questions that were investigated at the trial and the jury’s conclusion. I listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said. I fear that he wants the HSE to be able in its report—I do not think it can do this—to answer questions about what was in the minds of the mine manager and those working there about the direction that they proceeded in. It simply cannot revisit those questions. My understanding is that those issues were dealt with at the trial. Evidence was put forward on both sides of the argument. The jury reached a verdict, and that is something that the HSE cannot reopen in its report and investigation.

Mr Hain: I am not asking for that. I am certainly not asking for the HSE to read the minds of those, including the mine manager, who were mining at the time. I am simply asking the Minister to try to create circumstances in which the mines inspectors, in the HSE report, can confirm that they suspect that the water, as I said in my speech, was where the mine plan said it was and that, therefore, a catastrophic misjudgment was made. For what reason and how, it would be impossible to speculate. I readily accept that, but the misjudgment was made none the less.

Mr Harper: What the inspectors will be able to do is set out the evidence they got from the site investigation. They cannot revisit questions that were dealt with at the trial.

Ian Lavery: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Harper: Let me just reply to the right hon. Gentleman, because it is his debate, and then of course I shall listen to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. The inspectors cannot rerun the trial and, in effect, re-answer the question that was dealt with at the trial and come up with either the same or a different answer. That is not possible. I listened to what the right hon. Gentleman said. I am sure the inspectors will endeavour to ensure that they go as far as they can in setting out the evidence—the facts that they found on the ground—but they may not be able to speculate about things they simply cannot know. They have to stick to what the evidence says.

Ian Lavery: There is a big difference between the individuals being charged with corporate manslaughter and being found guilty of an offence, and what my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) is referring to, which is basically the causation of the accident. The causation of the accident is something that can be investigated completely differently, but using the same evidence that has been used in court for a criminal investigation. It is common sense that that would be the case.

Mr Harper: As I said, I have not seen the report and I do not know what it will say. The mines inspectorate will use its professional expertise to set out the evidence from the thorough site investigation that took place, but it cannot rerun the trial. For example, it is not disputed that the water was there at the time of the incident; what was disputed in court was whether the water was there all the time. The right hon. Member for Neath mentioned that there was a debate about the mine manager giving evidence that he had inspected the old workings. The HSE will not be able to settle questions that were dealt with at the trial and on which a conclusion could not be reached. That is all I am saying. It will endeavour, with the best of its professional judgment, to set out the evidence—what was found from the investigation. I have not seen the report and I do not know what it will say. It is in process.

My final point about the report is on timing. The report will be published in the new year—early in the new year, I hope—and, as I said, it will be published for everyone to see. I hope it will set out some lessons that can be learned from this tragedy.

Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for giving way again —he has been very generous. The crux of why we are here today is that, if this was a one-off and had never happened before, we would probably feel a lot more comfortable, but as I said, it was not a one-off and had happened previously. My right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) mentioned the 1979 regulations that were supposed to address the issue. It is all right saying, “Let’s learn the lessons.” A lesson learned is no use unless it is then applied. Our worry—hopefully this can be tightened up in the report if the HSE decides to do that—is ensuring that things like this, as far as is humanly possible, do not happen again. If, as has been said, the gentleman went in, did the investigation and found that there was no water, that should have raised concerns, because where had the water gone? That should have been followed up. The worry that Opposition Members have is that such an incident could happen again through things just generally not being tight enough.

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes a helpful point, because I was going to move on to the work that has been done to bring forward shortly new mine safety legislation that ensures clear duties on the operators of mines to manage the risks. That work was instigated independently of the Gleision accident, and it arose from the independent review of health and safety legislation by Professor Löfstedt, which reported in November 2011. We have taken into account what happened in the Gleision incident as we have developed the new law.

The current law governing safety in mines comprises more than 40 pieces of legislation, some of which date back as far as 1954. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, the coal industry is vastly different today. In addition to the huge changes in the coal sector, there has been a big shift in the wider health and safety framework, and the old mine safety legislation needs to be reviewed. The Health and Safety Executive has undertaken a review of that legislation over the past two years, and new mines regulations will be introduced in April next year. They will consolidate the key requirements for the control of risks that are, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, inherent in underground mining. That will include managing the risk of water inrushes, which was clearly the major issue at Gleision. Mine operators will remain legally bound to determine whether there is water around workings and to assess the risk of that water causing harm to mine workers.

The new regulations will place duties, for the first time, on the mine operator rather than, as at present, on the mine manager. They will also require the other principal risks in mining to be controlled. They will place clear and simple requirements on operators to ensure that adequate rescue arrangements are made. The current requirement for coal mines to belong to an approved scheme will not be carried forward. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that scheme, which was designed and introduced when there were 65 coal mines in operation, all of which contributed fees to fund the scheme and resources as part of their commitment to mutual assistance. There are now an insufficient number of mines to fund those arrangements. I looked into the matter in detail, not only now but as a result of experience in my constituency. Mine operators will be under a new duty to ensure that, if the rescue of workers is required in any foreseeable scenario, rescue arrangements will be available and workable. Coal mines will be required to make their own arrangements for rescue provision, tailored to the risks in each particular mine. Mine operators can use whatever third-party services may be appropriate to those risks. The HSE’s mines inspectors have a programme of interventions, between now and the entry into force of the new regulations, to check the arrangements that mines will have in place from April.

The current law is riddled with requirements to notify or otherwise seek the permission of the regulator before undertaking certain activities. It is not the regulator’s role to oversee day-to-day operations in such a way. Regulation of other major hazard industries successfully requires duty holders to demonstrate that their risk assessments and their control systems are in place and, importantly, robust, so that they can adequately manage risk to protect their employees and the wider community. The new regulations will take a similar approach in the mining sector. HSE inspectors are talking to mine operators and trade unions in the period leading up to the introduction of the new regulations to ensure that they are clear about how they will implement and comply with the regulations.

The new regulations will retain all the key controls over the hazards that are, as the Gleision tragedy and the right hon. Gentleman have reminded us, involved in mining, but they will deliver a modern, risk-based regime that will drive mine operators continuously to improve the management of the risks involved in mining. Tragedies such as the one he has powerfully described show us why we should never be complacent. We must try to prevent such incidents from happening again.

The hon. Member for Wansbeck raised the question of the inquests. My understanding is that they have not been restarted following the trial, and no formal notification has been made to the HSE that they have been closed. I will contact colleagues at the Ministry of Justice and make inquiries about the plan for those inquests—I will ask whether they will be restarted or formally concluded. I will write to the right hon. Member for Neath and, with his permission, to the two other hon. Members who are present, to set out the position.

Mr Hain: I am very grateful to the Minister for offering to do that. Will he tell his colleagues at the Ministry of Justice that it is my strong view that the process should be resumed? There should be a full inquest.

Mr Harper: When I contact colleagues at the Ministry of Justice, I will put on record the fact that it is the strong view of the constituency MP that the inquests should be resumed. I am not familiar with the legal rules around the matter and I do not know what the position is, but I will contact colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman—and, because of their interest in the matter, to the other two hon. Members who are present—and set out the position. I hope that that is helpful and that it will go some way to meeting the concerns of the families who, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, have conducted themselves with great dignity throughout the process. I hope that offers some small measure of comfort, and I thank him for raising the matter in the Chamber today.