The families of the four men who died in the Gleision colliery mining disaster “have been failed by the justice system”, according to Neath MP Peter Hain, who called the tragedy “a shocking, terrible scandal”.
The Labour politician and former work and pensions secretary said the unanswered question of why the four men faced their deaths in the drift mine on the morning of 15 September “haunts us all”. He called for the coroner’s inquest, which was convened and immediately adjourned, to be reopened.
Hain added he was concerned that HSE’s impending report on the incident, the production of which commenced after both the manager and owner of the Nealth Port Talbot mine were found not guilty of manslaughter earlier this year, would be constrained by the trial verdict. If it is, he said, “the inspectors will not be able to reveal their professional conclusions”.
Philip Hill, aged 44, Charles Breslin, 62, David Powell, 50, and Garry Jenkins, 39, died when 3,000 cubic metres of water engulfed the small south Wales mine after explosives were detonated to break through into old workings to improve ventilation and prolong the life of the colliery. Three men survived, including the mine manager Malcolm Fyfield.
Fyfield and mine owner, MNS Mining Ltd, faced charged of gross negligence manslaughter and corporate manslaughter respectively. Both were found not guilty following a three-month trial.
Speaking during a Westminster Hall debate in the Houses of Parliament, Hain said: “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.”
The minister with responsibility for health and safety, Mark Harper, moved to allay Hain’s concerns, saying that the investigation into the incident will be published by HSE’s mines inspectorate early next year, and will set out the evidence gathered from the investigation. However, he said HSE cannot revisit questions that were dealt with at the trial.
Hain also used the debate to warn that unless more money is found for HSE and the Mines Rescue Service mining accidents will become more frequent.
“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,” he said. “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.”
He added: “When I was the secretary of state for work and pensions in 2007-08, HSE’s budget was £215m. By last year, it had been cut by £50m, or a quarter, to £165m. Unless the government provide more money for mines rescue and 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.”
Much of the case at Swansea Crown Court centred on why Malcolm Fyfield allowed the coalface to be blasted when there were thousands of litres of water in the old workings. During the trial he said he had inspected behind the coalface on three occasions before the blast and found no water.
Hain also paid tribute to the families of the men who died, saying they had “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”.
Harper added that the recent review of mines regulation, which is due to sweep away the current stock of legislation and replace it with a more modern, risk-based framework, had taken the events at Gleision into consideration.
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