Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1967 Oct 26 Th
Margaret Thatcher

HC S [Aberfan Disaster]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: House of Commons Speech
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [751/1988-99]
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 2044-2118.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4174
Themes: -
[column 1988]

Mrs. Thatcher (Finchley)

This is perhaps the most difficult and most tragic debate in which I have ever taken part, and I should like to say at the outset that I share the views of those who have spoken, that there is nothing party political in this whatsoever. The Report itself did not apportion blame according to party political affiliation. It could not, because responsibility and the discharge of responsibility do not go party politically.

There is, too, a far greater bond in this disaster than any party political affiliation could indicate. All of us who are here felt with the people at Aberfan that day. It is disastrous enough to lose a child—I think it is the greatest disaster that can befall any family—but to lose a child in that way was so terrible that words can hardly express how we felt. [column 1989]

I should like also to say that we greatly admire the way in which the right hon. Gentleman Cledwyn Hughesthe Secretary of State for Wales dealt with the disaster on the spot, the way he went down on the first day and the way in which he coped with things. We also appreciate the difficulty of some of the decisions which he had to make, particularly when the rains came on the following day. Although he is not here at the moment we also watched with admiration the way in which the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas), went about his duties there, and I feel that we should express this admiration. I see that Sir Elwyn Jonesthe Attorney-General has come into the Chamber. May I say how helpful I found his opening speech to the Tribunal. I wish that he gave such good ones to the House, although I am glad that they are not so long. While I am on the section of my speech which pays tributes, I would add that we also admired the way in which Sir Edmund Davies went about and completed his task.

Before I come to what I have to say about the Report—because it is the Report which we are considering, and not conditions many years ago—I want to refer to one point that disturbed me as it disturbed the hon. Member who raised it during the debate. It concerns Tip No. 5 and the assurance which Richard Marshthe Minister of Power gave when he intervened earlier. What bothered me was what the Report itself said about that tip on page 47:

“One may conclude that No. 5 has been standing and is standing at a very low factor of safety.”

When the right hon. Gentleman winds up the debate perhaps he will tell us that remedial action has been taken since then which at any rate has increased that factor of safety. As matters stand in the Report, there is doubt about the safety of that enormous tip.

Turning to the events of what must be the biggest tragedy on the surface in the history of coal mining anywhere in the world, I share the views of the hon. Member who said that, always when tragedy strikes, the person in command should go to the scene as quickly as possible. This may be as a result of my own background of a family company. When anything happens, the person who is head of it goes immediately. There is automatically [column 1990]a certain drill. He is responsible for the whole outfit, and he must go. Before he goes, he summonses his chief lieutenant and gives specific instructions to find the facts as quickly as possible, but he himself goes there to show people that he is there to see what is going on and to extend sympathy, while setting his officials to work immediately.

I regret that Lord Robens did not do that. I am somewhat surprised that he did not, but I will not pursue that further.

Let us see what happened. Apparently the National Coal Board was in session when, at 11 o'clock, the message reached Hobart House of this terrible tragedy. I am disappointed that, when it came through, no member of the Board immediately went to the accident. That is the next thing that should have happened. If the chairman does not go, one of the board members should go. He did not.

The other top man concerned was the Divisional Chairman, Mr. Kellett, who has already been mentioned. From the book which has been written on Aberfan, I understand that Mr. Kellett was at a power conference in Japan at the time. What puzzles me is that, according to the book, he received instructions that he was to stay there. This again I find very surprising. The tragedy was in his area. At the time, he had no deputy. His deputy had died rather tragically a few months previously. I find it surprising that he did not come back in time, and even more surprising that he did not come back in time, and even more surprising that he did not come back to give evidence when the Tribunal sat, which was very much later.

There is a special reason why I find it surprising. The right hon. Gentleman knows that part of the case advanced by counsel for the Board was that absence of a tip policy should not be laid at the door of the Board, but at the door of that division. If someone is going to advance that argument, surely he must ensure that the head of the division is in the country, and, possibly, that he is brought before the Tribunal to give evidence? I understand that had Mr. Kellett been in this country he would have been competent to deal with the matter. He is a most able man, and would have given very forthright evidence. It seems that from the Board's point of view the handling of this matter went wrong from the outset. It is a great pity that it did. Someone [column 1991]spoke, or the Chairman spoke, before the facts had been found. This is a basic mistake which one should not make.

The opening statement of counsel for the Board at the Tribunal came in for a great deal of criticism, and reference to this has been made by hon. Members today. He would not even concede the existence of certain watercourses. In an ordinary law case it may be good practice not to concede anything which one does not have to concede, but in a case of this kind it would greatly have assisted the rest of the hearing had maximum obligation been admitted so that the Tribunal could go on to consider the technical reasons for the disaster.

I contrast what happened there with another inquiry, that into the cause of the accident to the drilling rig Sea Gem, a report of which was also made to the Minister. In this case absolute liability was admitted straight away, and co-operation was given to the Tribunal, as a result of which, instead of sitting for about 74 days, it sat on only 29 days, and made this comment:

“So generous, however, was the contribution of all concerned, that there can hardly ever have been an investigation better served by those who offered evidence.”

Mr. James Griffiths

I am extremely interested in what the hon. Lady has been saying. Will she tell us by whom the book was written and when? I have never heard of it.

Mrs. Thatcher

It is entitled “Aberfan” and is written by Tony Austin. I am not plugging for anyone, but I think that it is worth reading. It gives many of the details which we might otherwise not have had. If I refer to it, it is only because it is my source of information. Where I get information from the book, I naturally refer to the source. That is my legal training.

I believe that it was the duty of the Board, in deciding what attitude to adopt towards the Tribunal, to avoid unnecessary waste of time, to avoid giving misleading impressions, and to admit errors at the earliest opportunity. This was not done, and I share the regret which has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I come now to the person whom the Board chose to appear for it at the [column 1992]Tribunal, Mr. Sheppard, to whom the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) referred. He was the most senior man to appear for the Board before the Tribunal. He was not a Board member. He was Director-General of Production, and head of the department responsible for tips.

I thought that his evidence showed a disquieting state of affairs with regard to knowledge at the Board's headquarters. I have looked at the transcript of evidence in the Library. It shows that at head-quarters the knowledge of tips was in an abysmal state. He was in charge of pit safety from the Board's point of view, and I propose to quote some of the evidence that he gave:

“Q. Are you saying it was not appreciated at national level that tips do slide? A. That was appreciated, that tips slide.

Q. Let me take the next step. Was it appreciated that when they do slide they can often slide a long way? A. That was not appreciated, no.

That was not appreciated? A. No.

Q. Was it appreciated that tips were on steep hillsides in Wales? A. That was known of course, yes.”

I will go on with the questioning because it seemed one of the most remarkable series of answers to questions that I have ever read on the part of someone put up for his knowledge of tips. The Tribunal went on to question Mr. Sheppard about the literature about tips, of which there was a great deal kept at National Coal Board headquarters, circulated and comparatively well known Mr. Sheppard was asked whether it was appreciated that a book had been written by Professor Sinclair in 1963, on “Ground Movement and Control at Collieries” He answered:

“It is a book I have not read, sir.”

There were two things here. First, the witness put up by the Board who was in charge of the safety of tips at the Board had such a curious line of answer that the Inspector of Mines referred to it as absolutely “astounding” . The second point is that by the time the Tribunal had come to its fifty-first day the person who should have known all about tips had not informed himself about them, although he knew that he was coming before the Tribunal.

I was absolutely astounded at this. Any of us, if we had been going before a [column 1993]tribunal and had not known what we should on the day the disaster happened, would have due out every bit of information; he would have trooped out staff before him and said, “You give me everything there is on this.” That was not done.

Hon. Members may ask why I have made such a point of this. There is a definite reason. Mr. Sheppard 's evidence was referred to by the Tribunal in very critical terms. It said, in paragraph 188, having discussed this evidence:

“Does it really lie in the mouths of the National Coal Board to say that they were wholly ignorant of such a possibility” —

that was, slipping to disaster—

“and are therefore to be excused for having paid no attention to tip stability? And is Mr. Sheppard, in particular, entitled so to shield himself from all responsibility? such questions … call for only one answer. They cannot be so excused. If, as reasonable men, they had given thought to the matter, they could not fail to have known and realised that, unless proper steps are taken, spoil heaps can and do collapse and that, if they do, they may imperil not only the safety of men working upon them but also the persons and property of others.”

That was what the Tribunal said about the tip expert of the National Coal Board.

What happened to this witness afterwards? This is important from the point of view of the confidence of the House in the manner in which the matter was handled at top level. I did not realise, until I got the Report of the Board, just published, what happened to this witness afterwards. Apparently he was promoted. I have read the evidence that he gave, and within a month or six weeks of giving that evidence he was promoted to be a full member of the Board.

He must have been promoted by Richard Marshthe Minister, because the Minister appoints members of the Board. I found it disquieting that someone like that should be promoted against that background. With due respect, I would have thought that Lord Robens would not have been fully happy about it, because I have read his address to the National Union of Mineworkers on 4th July, 1963, talking about management and safety, when he said:

“There are lessons for management too in the reports.” —

those were the reports of the Divisional Inspectors of Mines. I know and follow [column 1994]them up personally, as I believe, on mine safety, Lord Robens did. He went on:

“If we are going to make pits safer for men we shall have to discipline the wrongdoer. I have no sympathy at all for those people—whether men, management or officials—who act in any way which endangers the lives and limbs of others.”

The question to which I want an answer from the Minister—and I come to it early—is: why, against that background, did he promote Mr. Sheppard?

I turn now to the findings of the Tribunal. I think there has been a bit of a tendency to believe that responsibility somehow does not attach to anyone and that, in any event, this would have happened. That was not the finding of the Tribunal set up specifically to inquire into this matter. The findings were clear and succinct, and they are one of the most severe indictments of an organisation that I have ever read.

The findings were:

“I. Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board. …

II. There was a total absence of tipping policy and this was the basic cause of the disaster. …”
The safety of tips, which is dealt with in paragraph III, was referred to in paragraph 18 of the Report as follows:
“… our strong and unanimous view is that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented. We were not unmindful of the fact that strong words of calumny had been used before our Inquiry began. But the Report which follows tells not of wickedness but of ignorance, ineptitude and a failure in communications. Ignorance on the part of those charged at all levels with the siting, control and daily management of tips; bungling ineptitude on the part of those who had the duty of supervising and directing them; and failure on the part of those having knowledge of the factors which affect tip safety to communicate that knowledge and to see that it was applied.”

I have read out that paragraph in full for a definite reason. These were not failures of sophisticated management. They were failures of absolutely elementary management. The people at the Coal Board were not discharging their proper duties of management either to the industry or to the people in their care. This is why I think it is such a strong indictment of the Board. It is happens that the families of some of these people paid the penalty. But surely there was a tremendous duty of care to those who [column 1995]worked upon the tips as employees of the Board.

It was a failure of basic management, according to the Tribunal. When this happens, I think one is entitled to ask: who is responsible? There is somehow a feeling that no one is responsible. I despise any organisation or person who attempts to pass the buck further down the line. If there is not good management further down the line, it is because good management is not there at the top.

Let us look at some of these indictments. There was a failure of policy. Whose job is it to lay down policy? It is top management; that is the only job they have got to do. When they have decided upon the policy it is necessary to choose the right men to do the right job. Whose job is that? The choice of men again is that of top management, and it is the duty of top management to see that those jobs are carried out.

If there are no communications, either there is no machinery—again a failure of management—or else the machinery is there and it is not being used—again a failure of management—or else action is not being taken upon the information. All of these were failures of the National Coal Board as such, and this is one of the reasons why the document itself is such an indictment against the Board. Who then is responsible for this? It must be the Board at the top, and the Tribunal itself does not absolve the Board from responsibility. Indeed, it places that responsibility upon it.

Various questions have been asked about the resignation of Lord Robens. Some people have tried to put it as a doctrine of Ministerial responsibility. I should never raise any question of this kind as high as Ministerial responsibility. I think that anyone at the top of an organisation which has been found culpable, as this has, should always tender his resignation. Personally, if I tendered my resignation—I see that my leader has come in and is sitting behind me—I should expect to go. But this does not always seem to attach to resignations these days.

I come now to the assurances we want from the Minister. We are in considerable difficulty here. One of the crucial factors in the whole Aberfan disaster is that assurances were constantly asked, [column 1996]and assurances which were totally false were constantly given. How in the world are we to judge now whether the new assurances, which undoubtedly we shall be given, will this time be honoured? We do not know. But I make this comment. It is a jolly sight easier to exercise control in private industry. For example, it would be easier to tip off Courtaulds Douglas Jaythe ex-President of the Board of Trade than it seems to be to exercise control over the National Coal Board, which we own. This, surely, is wrong. [Interruption.] We shall see whether that is true. We shall see how much control we can exercise. The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), who is a constituent of mine, has not been present the whole time, but several hon. Members have raised the question and asked: how could we have controlled this particular incident?

Mr. Probert

Is the hon. Lady aware that, in 1938 or 1939, when the coal industry was owned very much at local level, there was a serious coal slide? I do not recall that there were any resignations at that time, or that anyone was removed from office.

Mr. Finch

Or after an explosion, either.

Mrs. Thatcher

I have not made myself clear. The Report is a unique document which lays the blame. There are many disasters after which there is not a specific inquiry making specific findings which specifically apportion blame. I cannot think of one—perhaps the hon. Gentleman can—parallel with this.

Mr. James Griffiths

The hon. Lady is on a fair point, but I ask her to direct her mind to this. Will she read paragraph 70 of the Report? If she were a member of the Powell Duffryn company, whom would she have sacked?

Mrs. Thatcher

I know that the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect, mentioned paragraph 70. This is one of the matters which I had in mind when I said that the Report did not apportion praise or blame politically. That particular incident was not the subject of an inquiry which found blame. I hope that I have made the point clear to the right hon. Gentleman. I had passed on to the section of my speech dealing with assurances, which is rather [column 1997]important, because, in the past, people were lulled into a false sense of security by false assurances. If one is given a false assurance, one is often prevented from taking further action because one believes that action has been taken on one's past complaint.

The latest assurances given was given after the disaster. It is quoted in paragraph 64:

“Only eighty tips are at present in use, but the Coal Board has a regular inspection of all tips on its land, whether these tips are in use or not.”

That again, was an assurance, given in the light of the disaster. The Tribunal itself says that, somehow, the Secretary of State had been grievously misinformed. I put no blame on the Secretary of State for this. We all rely on information which we are given. But the difficulty we are in now is that the past assurances, which were given in good faith, have been found to be false. We are once again asking the Minister for assurances. He has given some, and in answer to a Written Question on 6th June, 1967, R. Freesonhis Parliamentary Secretary said:

“My right hon. Friend has ascertained from the National Coal Board that all colliery spoil heaps in their ownership have been critically examined and remedial measures taken in any case where there was the possibility of a hazard to the surrounding area. A procedure has been established by the Board for technical and operational control over spoil heaps which includes frequent and regular investigations by specialists to ensure safety and stability. The Board have also arranged courses of instruction …” em;[Official Report, 6th June, 1967; Vol. 747, c. 173–4.]

I hope that the Minister will go a little further into this. I have read his document, but the House is in difficulty about how far he can scientifically give a firm assurance that all tips have now been made safe. I suspect that he cannot give it. Therefore, we should know how many tips are still potentially dangerous, so that people are not once again lulled into a false sense of security.

I think that the procedure outlined in the Minister's paper to be followed in the case of future tip sites and future tips is good. It is all right if one is starting de novo, getting the right sight, following the right procedure and stopping the tipping when it becomes dangerous. Our problem is with present tips and—one of the problems that occurred in Aberfan—tipping on top of [column 1998]other tips, on top of other slides, and in the gap caused by another slide. Obviously, all future tipping in bad areas will be stopped, but what have the Minister's researches shown him about existing heaps?

What progress is the Minister having with recruitment of the necessary staff? This will not be easy. It is easy to lay down what should happen and to want so many civil engineers here and so many more qualified people there. As far as I can see, they are now being recruited, but how many extra civil engineers has the Board taken on net? In an industry which, the Minister will be the first to agree, is contracting at present, it will not be easy to recruit qualified and skilled people to carry out of the programme which the Minister says is necessary.

I note that the Board have also arranged courses of instruction in spoil heap management. They are pretty small courses are they not?—one day for staff and two days for those further down the line. It does not seem to me that everything about tip management can be learnt in those two days.

All kinds of other assurances have been given. The Answer to which I have referred said that the tips had been “critically examined” . Of what did that examination consist? It is reported in The Times of 4th August that it was just a visual examination. Again, we face the difficulty that words are used which somehow give an impression of greater security than the facts behind them warrant. We now want a very dispassionate examination, and we should know exactly what the position is of all the tips which have been examined. How have they been examined and what are the dangers?

I also hope that there is now no complacency whatsoever in the National Coal Board. I hope that it has fully accepted the Tribunal's strictures. But I am left in doubt when I read in the Daily Telegraph of 31st August the account of an interview in which Lord Robens is reported as saying, after the Board's Report had been published:

“At no time did anyone think of pit tips as that sort of potential danger.”

That was on 31st August. I find that extremely worrying, because there is evidence upon evidence in the Report of the [column 1999]Tribunal of people who did think, and who still think, of those tips as a potential source of danger. One of those who warned the powers that be about the dangers of the tip was the schoolmaster of one of the schools, who died before the disaster occurred. He warned that the tip might come tumbling over and spoke of the fears impressed on him that the tip would come away again and would overwhelm the school and the houses. That was in July, 1962.

There were people at that time who had these fears about these tips and I am, therefore, worried that a statement like that should appear—I have no means of knowing whether it is correct—because it seems to indicate that the full danger from slides is not appreciated; and if the danger is not appreciated then the remedial action cannot be taken to put it right.

I hope that the Minister will answer the questions which have been put to him during the debate. I hope that he will also say why Mr. Sheppard was promoted. I hope that he will say that he accepts the findings of the Report. We had a rather general phrase used at the beginning of the debate, and it was not clear whether the Government accept the findings of the Report. Unless they do, all the remedial action which should be taken will not be taken. I hope that when he replies we shall have a firm assurance backed by his own personal guarantee.

It distresses many of us still to read that all is not well in Aberfan. We have concentrated in the debate on tips, but it distresses us when we still read of continual flooding in the houses of Aberfan. I hope that the Minister will give attention to that matter, too. This means a great deal in ordinary everyday life and, so long as it goes on, the bitterness cannot begin to be alleviated. We all speak here as ordinary men and women, and nothing that we can do for Aberfan is too much. I hope that the Minister will go on doing things for Aberfan until Aberfan is made a beautiful place in which to live.