Pit safety plans go 'back to Dark Ages'

BRITAIN'S shrinking mining industry faces the most radical management changes for nearly 40 years under Health and Safety Commission recommendations to the Government.

The tripartite commission has suggested regulations which would drastically change old managerial structures and end the critical function of pit deputies who ensure safety standards whenever coal is cut.

The proposals, which have been presented to David Hunt, the Secretary of State for Employment, are expected to prompt demands for a judicial review from unions. Commissioners want to see the regulations introduced by 1 October. No new legisation will be required, but the plans will encounter considerable opposition in Parliament.

Coal unions say that strict and detailed statutes governing the safety of pits will be replaced by 'vague' codes of practice giving mine managers much more discretion in applying the rules. The proposals sent to Mr Hunt will replace the statutory functions of deputies with a stricture that there should be a 'suitable management structure'.

Peter McNestry, general secretary of the colliery deputies' union Nacods, said yesterday the proposals would send the collieries 'back to the Dark Ages' where the conditions faced by pitmen were at the whim of managers.

'It is now a question of whether the Government wants to pick a fight over an issue as fundamental as mine safety,' he said.

The commission was originally scheduled to take the decision at the beginning of the year, but decided to wait until the publication of the Government's White Paper on the future of the industry. When the body took the decision on 12 April only one of three union representatives was present. Peter Jacques, a TUC official, registered his 'strong objection' to the plan.