It's not too late to say sorry

January 17, 1997

Education troubleshooter Sir Ron Dearing protected the National Coal Board from some of the political consequences of the 1966 Aberfan disaster, according to papers released by the Public Records Office. Iain McLean sifts the evidence

Sir Ron Dearing (right), the Government's all-purpose education troubleshooter, shielded the National Coal Board from the political impact of the 1966 Aberfan disaster, according to papers on the infamous incident released earlier this month by the Public Record Office. The Ministry of Power's coal division, where he was deputy head, blocked a private contractor's offer to remove the Aberfan colliery waste tips after the disaster. Dearing also discouraged his minister, Richard Marsh, from alerting Margaret Thatcher, then Opposition spokesman on power, to a misleading statement Marsh made in the House in a reply to her. The coal division seemed more devoted to protecting the industry it sponsored, not the general public.

Nobody old enough to remember Aberfan will ever forget the facts. On October 21 1966, a heap of colliery waste slid down a hillside and smothered Pantglas Junior School, where the children had just returned to their classes after singing "All Things Bright and Beautiful" at assembly; 116 children, including almost half the pupils at Pantglas School, and 28 adults, including five of their teachers, were killed. A tribunal of inquiry was immediately appointed. It produced what then prime minister Harold Wilson described as a "devastating" report in July 1967. The report blamed the National Coal Board for the disaster. Nine named officials of the board were blamed individually, and the report was particularly scathing about the behaviour of the board and of its chairman, Lord Robens, after the disaster. The board attempted to argue that the causes of the disaster were unforeseeable, whereas the signs of impending disaster had been there for all to see since 1944. Lord Robens had talked about "unknown springs" causing the disaster, whereas everybody in the village knew that the coal board had been tipping over two springs since 1958.

Nobody was prosecuted, dismissed, or even demoted. Lord Robens clung grimly to his chairmanship, offering Marsh a half-hearted and belated resignation while ensuring that ministers would find it impossible to accept. The House of Commons debated the tribunal report in October 1967; the only parliamentary sequel was the passage of the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969.

Meanwhile, the villagers of Aberfan continued to live with two 100-foot high tips looming over them. Though the coal board and ministers insisted that they were safe, villagers did not believe them. They cited two documents from the tribunal report. One said that the topmost tip "is standing at a very low factor of safety"; the other was a Coal Board memorandum saying that tips above habitations should be no more than 20 feet high. In any case, people found it psychologically intolerable to live in the tips' shadow. The Coal Board refused to pay to remove them; it claimed that removal would cost Pounds 3 million, although one of its own technical reports had priced it at Pounds 1 million. In the end, the Aberfan Disaster Fund had to pay Pounds 150,000 towards the cost of removing them, despite its charitable status. Sir Ron's divisional advice indirectly led to this outcome.

Ron Dearing joined the civil service as a 16-year-old clerical officer in 1946. By 1967, aged only 37, he had risen very rapidly indeed, and was one of the two deputy heads of the coal division of the Ministry of Power, with the rank of assistant secretary. Within the ministry, he had lead responsibility for the delicate issues of the tribunal report - Robens's "resignation", and removal of the tips.

On September 1 1967, Dearing sent his under-secretary a draft "short paper for the minister to submit to his colleagues". 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."

Ministers shared this view. They would rather have the devil they knew managing the decline of coal, albeit on his terms, than impose a new management. Therefore Marsh rejected Robens's resignation. Robens rejected the letter rejecting his resignation. Marsh reissued it, to his civil servants' dismay, without the paragraph Robens disliked. Robens then agreed to stay.

The Commons debate was fixed for October 25. Dearing had responsibility for a long briefing note to Marsh, covering the points which the coal division anticipated might be raised in the debate. This note encouraged Marsh to say that "the House should not allow itself to be sidetracked" into discussing the attitude of Robens or the board to the tribunal. It conceded that the board itself did not seek to defend Lord Robens's attitude. "It is suggested that the minister should not seek to defend Lord Robens's evidence." (He did not). Sir Ron, although he does not remember any of the specific details in these papers, recalls his surprise that Robens, "a man who was so adept at PR, should make such an awful mess" over Aberfan.The note also advised the minister how to counter any calls for the resignation of the board, individual members of it, or other coal board employees.

The most striking part of the briefing note concerns "the future of the tips at Aberfan". It records how much the Coal Board had spent on making the disaster tip safe, but notes in brackets that its figures are "deliberately ambiguous". It continues by pointing out that removal of the other tips was a matter for the Welsh Office, not the Ministry of Power. However, it goes on to deal with claims being made by a contractor called Lawrence Ryan that he could remove them for a fraction of the cost claimed by the Coal Board, especially if permitted to retrieve reusable coal from them. (He later tendered to remove them for Pounds 660,000.) The note says that the "sale of the coal is a problem: (because) i) It displaces deep mined coal when the mines cannot be closed fast enough and their stockpiles are swollen and ii) If non-NCB tips are concerned the contractor can sell the coal cheaply to the detriment of the NCB." The note records that the attorney-general, Sir Elwyn Jones, had heard rumours Ryan left tips in "a shamblesI (In confidence NCB confirms this has been Ryan's position)."

These arguments simply represent the Coal Board's self-interest, passed on unfiltered by the coal division without regard to the public interest. That Ryan's coal might be cheaper than the coal board's was offered as an argument against him. And one might have thought that the coal board was in no moral position to complain about people who left tips in a shambles. (Shambles, a place of carnage or wholesale slaughter; a scene of blood - Oxford English Dictionary, sense 5a).

In the event, Margaret Thatcher, for the Opposition, stopped short of demanding anyone's resignation in the debate (something she now regrets, according to her memoirs). So most of Dearing's briefing note was not used. However, four Opposition speakers asked why certain Coal Board members and employees had not appeared before the tribunal. They were particularly interested in the board's South Wales divisional chairman, A. H. Kellett, whom Robens had told to keep out of the affair. Some MPs felt that if Robens was going to dodge the blame, then Kellett must take it. Marsh wrongly said, in reply, that the Coal Board had chosen its own witnesses for the tribunal. In fact, the tribunal, an independent body, had decided itself whom to summon. Though this may have been a point of minor significance, Dearing minuted that his minister should perhaps correct the mistake in Hansard, the written record of the proceedings of Parliament. But then he added that the ministry would have to notify Mrs Thatcher. "Perhaps the best thing is to do nothing," Dearing suggested in his minute. Nothing was done. The record was not corrected.

Thus in 1967 the coal division of the Ministry of Power prepared to mislead Parliament and did mislead (albeit only by omission) the Opposition spokesman. Could it happen now? Yes, it could and does. Considerably worse things were revealed in the 1996 Scott report on arms sales to Iraq. Sir Richard Scott, for instance, criticised one civil servant for supplying a draft parliamentary answer which "if given, would have been untrue". He severely criticised two others who had discussed what one of them openly called "conniv(ing) to impede the course of justice": "For the Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials to have lent themselves to this interference with the course of a criminal trial was, in my opinion, thoroughly reprehensible," wrote Sir Richard.

However, some things have changed since 1967. Politicians and commentators are much more aware now than then that industries tend to "capture" their regulators. Industry regulators are much more independent of ministries now than then. Generally, politics is somewhat more open to the interests of consumers. And the Scott report and the Nolan Commission may themselves be leading to more honest, or at least more careful, advice being given to ministers.

None of this can have comforted the victims of Aberfan. Even after 30 years, it would not be too late for somebody from the Coal Board or the Government to say sorry.

Iain McLean is professor of politics, Oxford University.

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