Aberfan aftermath, Sir Ron replies: 'I believe advice was disinterested and just''

February 7, 1997

On January 17 Iain McLean wrote an article in The THES about the 1966 Aberfan disaster. Drawing on papers just released by the Public Record Office Professor McLean suggested that Sir Ron Dearing, then a key civil servant in the Ministry of Power, protected the National Coal Board from some of the political consequences of the tragedy.

Professor McLean made three key points: First, that Sir Ron wrote a draft briefing paper setting out reasons against the resignation or sacking of NCB chairman Lord Robens, who might have been expected to take responsibility for the disaster.

Second, that he was responsible for a briefing note to his minister, Richard Marsh, that argued against giving a private contractor permission to remove cheaply the two coal tips that still overshadowed the village. In the end the Aberfan Disaster Fund had to pay Pounds 150,000 towards the cost of removing them.

Third, that Sir Ron advised Mr Marsh against correcting in Hansard a mistake he had made during the October 25 Commons debate on the disaster.

Here, Sir Ron replies to Professor Mclean's points: Aberfan is a shared and enduring sorrow. There was anger as well as pity. And a national resolve to see that it should never happen again. In the shadow of that disaster it seems a mean and petty thing for me to seek to respond to Iain McLean's article. But the public interest that justified the article justifies this response.

Professor McLean is concerned with three issues. I will deal with them in turn.

In the light of the findings of the tribunal into the Aberfan disaster, (which found that the National Coal Board was to blame), it was my task to advise whether Lord Robens, then chairman of the NCB, should go. In his article Professor McLean says: "On September 1 1967, Dearing sent his under-secretary a draft short paper for the minister to submit to his colleagues" and says that the paper argued "that Robens should stay for the following reasons: i.We have no ready alternative to put into the job.

ii.Lord Robens's vigorous criticisms of the ministry, however unfair we may sometimes think them to be, have been productive in uniting the industry at a very difficult time and reducing the risk of strike action by miners against the board.

iii.Lord Robens has said in a TV interview that if the Government asks him to stay in office, he is willing to do so; acceptance of his resignation would therefore appear as an act of dismissal. This would make for difficulties in the minister's relations with the industry."

As a matter of record, none of this was in the paper I put to ministers. The arguments in that paper were quite different. The passages McLean quoted were in a side note I put to my boss as secondary considerations. As a matter of factual accuracy, the quotation at the end of (iii) should have read: "This would make for difficulties in the minister's relations with the industry, which appears to be united behind the chairman". The omitted material was significant to a decision on whether Robens should stay.

The second point, translated from Mandarin, says: "Robens has given us a rough time". If personal feelings had anything to do with advice, the paper to ministers might have been rather different.

But as Richard Marsh said in his closing speech in the debate in the Commons, "Robens was a superb leader of men". I have argued publicly that in taking the coal industry through a period of painful contraction without big strikes, his was one of the most remarkable achievements in management in the postwar period. Whatever our personal feelings might have been about Robens, the cross we in the ministry sometimes bore from his attacks on us helped him to hold the industry together. The miners felt he was on their side.

After Aberfan, crucial to the decision whether he should stay in office was whether he retained the support of the industry. The National Union of Mineworkers (including the Wales NUM) itself came out in support of him, as did the supervisors and divisional managers.

Thirty years on, it is easy to forget Lord Robens's remarkable achievement in holding the confidence of those unions through the contraction of the industry. It was, after all, the NUM that effectively brought down the Heath government in 1974 and raised the question "who rules Britain". Such power was far from negligible in public policy in the 1960s.

The issue of Robens's future was not, however, decided on a popularity vote. Fundamentally, as my paper to ministers said, it would have been wrong to sack Robens, a nontechnical man, when he could not have been expected to have realised, in the absence of any warning from mining engineers, that there was a gap in the board's safety arrangements. Had he been personally culpable for the disaster he must have gone, however important he was to the industry.

Lord Robens was a flawed genius. His attendance at the degree ceremony at Surrey University, even though he was its chancellor, on the Saturday night after the disaster was an appalling blunder. His appearance at the tribunal was just about as bad. It seemed he could get nothing right over Aberfan. But that was not the issue at stake. The issue was first, was he to blame? And second, if he were not to blame, did he have the confidence of the industry? The answer to the first was "no", to the second "yes". So it was right that Robens stayed on.

The second issue in Professor McLean's article was the advice given in briefing for the Commons debate on the Aberfan tip. In particular, he quotes comments on a proposal by the Ryan Company to remove the whole tip and cut the costs of doing so by screening out the coal and selling it. He mentions the comment in the brief that this would adversely affect NCB sales at a time of high coal stocks and pit closures. He notes that the brief quotes the attorney general's advice to the secretary of state for Wales that he had heard that the Ryan Company left tips in a shambles, and that the brief said that the NCB confirmed this. Such material led him to say that the brief was representing the Coal Board's self interest.

But the brief gave other reasons for being cautious about the Ryan proposals, which have nothing to do with NCB self-interest. After quoting the attorney general's warning the brief fairly points out that, "the operation requires planning approval, and the local authority can and do attach conditions dealing with the state in which the site is to be left". The modest conclusion to the brief is to tell the minister "not to be too enthusiastic (ie, in the debate) about future offers of help from the supporters of Mr Ryan". The brief did not advise him to reject them; only to be careful.

Professor McLean refers to another brief which says that the costs of dealing with the tip given by the parliamentary secretary for Wales at a meeting with people from Aberfan were deliberately ambiguous. It was surely right for the briefing to warn my ministers of any such ambiguities.

The last point in the article is my advice not to correct Hansard on an error made by Richard Marsh in his speech closing the debate. The basic reason was that (like McLean) I saw the error as of minor significance - in fact I cannot see that it had significance.

The facts were these. Four MPs had complained about the NCB not putting senior people before the tribunal. Richard Marsh replied that the board had decided on a list of people it would put forward to give evidence. He was wrong. The board had no choice. The tribunal decided for itself whom it wanted to question. As for Marsh's speech, within a few sentences of his false start, he got it right: he said that the tribunal could have called any of the men members had named in the debate. In short, the minister did not mislead the House on the issue of concern.

To have corrected Hansard in this case would have meant securing agreement to rewriting three sentences (a rare thing) and correspondence with Margaret Thatcher, who had wound up for the Opposition. My conclusion was that the minister should leave the matter. The issue is whether, given the minor significance of the error, he should have put the record right. In today's world, perhaps. I do not know. It seemed different then: there was more trust.

We all carry the burdens of self-criticism for the things we did wrong. I have my share of them. But on cleaning up the tip, I question whether Professor McLean's article does justice to the complexity of issues or to the modesty of the conclusion in the brief, which simply advised the minister to be cautious about the Ryan proposals. On Robens, I believe my Sir Ron Dearing is chairman of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education.

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