Final act of class vindictiveness

The Tories are presiding over the decimation of not just the steel industry, writes David Douglass

With the last deep mine in Britain (Kellingley) due to close in December or January, it seems strange, but the Tories are still waging war against the miners. Something about us and our history obviously keeps them awake at night; they dream of trying to undo all of the advances we ever made.

The nationalised British mines, with a strong, 100% trade union in every aspect of pit work, safety and even management, were the safest in the world by far. Workers’ rights were won hard and won early. The Hartley disaster of 1862 set an unbroken precedent that allowed for the appointment of independent (of management, owners or government) workmen’s inspectors and inspections. The great Felling disaster of 1812 and the search for a safer method of underground illumination brought us the Davy lamp in 1815 (this is its bicentenary year). The wit and skill of the miners ensured that earlier pit sense applied to naked candle flames had taught them how to ‘read’ the presence of explosive ‘fire damp’ - and they soon translated this skill to the flame safety lamp. It meant that the miner with the lamp could test for the presence of gas himself, and not rely on some mine official either to do it or to tell the truth of what he had found. All of these became enshrined in the ‘bible’ of the mining industry, the 1954 Mines and Quarries Act (MQA).

I was shocked and appalled when I discovered that behind the scenes and without any discussion in parliament the Tories had scrapped the lot. First, the obligation to carry a flame safety lamp, which had been compulsory for mine officials, was abolished. The right of a miner to use it at any time during his shift, and to act on his findings - turning off power, stopping coal cutting and shot blasting, and withdrawing to a place of safety - was likewise abolished. The testing for gas at the beginning and end of a shift was ended.

These are monumental changes to miner’s safety provision and all without a peep from anyone. Mines can now ‘opt’ to still supply the lamp, but only mine museums are actually likely to do so. The right for miners themselves to be supplied with, and use at any time, any type of gas detection equipment has also been abolished, so the idea that the lamp is just old-fashioned and redundant cannot be used as a reason. Actually I hold the flame safety lamp to be far superior to any of the battery-operated or electric gizmos which are its supposed successors, for a thousand reasons I need not go into here.

Suffice to say the lamp has not been abolished for something better, but just removed with nothing left in its place. This means for the first time in almost 200 years coal miners cannot test their own place of work for gas, and will not know of its presence unless someone else deems to tell them. They cannot shut down power and stop operations when previously they might know for themselves it was imperative they do so, because they will not now know. The potential for one final, catastrophic accident is palpable.

Section 123 of the MQA enshrined the right of miners to elect from their own ranks, and in specific circumstances from experts outside, two mines inspectors. These inspectors are independent from the colliery management, and the colliery safety committees established under the subsequent 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act and its consolidated Employment Protection Act (1975) - they stand in their own right. The National Union of Mineworkers never allowed the subsequent acts to replace the section 123 provision because they are vastly inferior to it.

Under this long-standing law, miners’ safety inspectors look at every aspect of the mine in a series of regular visits, but more importantly they have the absolute right to go anywhere, at any time, and inspect sites of incidents and accidents, or places of concern. All that is required is that the management is informed where the inspectors are going and when, as a courtesy: they do not require permission and cannot be refused. The reports are passed directly to the inspectorate, and not via the management. Miners working on the day shift who are concerned by a potential danger they have spotted can request an inspection and within hours one can be organised and acted upon, by the following shift at the latest. A section 123 report carries enormous weight because, once it is in the hands of the mines inspectorate, it is obliged to act.

So it is with great dismay that I learned the whole act had been abolished. The weighty MQA is now replaced by the slender Mines Regulations, and it is not the abolition of outmoded rules on, say, ponies which is the problem. Rather it is the vital and fundamental provisions applied for miners’ own self-protection which is the issue here. The two most important features of South African and Chinese mines, resulting in their appalling safety record, are: the absence of the right of miners to inspect their own place of work with a flame safety lamp or other gas detector; and the lack of independent inspections. It is no secret that these provisions hand power directly to the man at the pick point on the coal face or tunnel, and not to management officials. They provide for the worker to shut off power, and stop cutting operations without permission if continued production could cause a hazard.

So the latest changes are far-reaching and potentially fatal - they have without question been sneaked in. The Health and Safety Executive claims that over 30 bodies were consulted before the changes, but I am informed by other bodies that the consultation consisted of ‘Here is what we intend to do’ and in reality the changes were non-negotiable. My continuing and vexed correspondence with the HSE on this matter has produced the utterly fantastic comment that the withdrawal of all these fundamental rights and provisions does not in fact weaken mine safety!

I confess to being entirely dumbfounded as to why, with one deep mine and perhaps a couple of small drifts left in existence, such a profound and destructive legislative attack has been embarked upon. Perhaps because they are looking to the large expansion in other (potash) mines, perhaps just for the pure spite of destroying such far-reaching advances in workers’ rights before they die out anyway with the closure of the last mine.

One thing is certain: class hatred of the miners runs very deep. The closure of the last coal mine at a time when we still import 35 million tonnes of more expensively produced coal from elsewhere is an ongoing illustration of this. The current fate of the steel industry follows the same anti-proletarian logic - bizarre even by the standards of the ruling class.