The debt owed to Aberfan

May 23, 1997

An Oxford University professor claims that the Aberfan Disaster Fund was bullied out of Pounds 150,000 and that the present Government should make amends. Julia Hinde reports.

The cemetery and the memorial garden in the South Wales mining village of Aberfan are the enduring monuments to the disaster, 30 years ago, when a coal waste tip slipped down a mountainside, engulfing a school and about 20 houses; 144 people died, 116 of them were children.

The cemetery and the garden are lovingly tended by the parents and relatives who remain in the former mining village. But money for their upkeep is running out and there is concern for their long-term maintenance.

It is against this background that Iain McLean, professor of politics at Oxford University, has written to the new Labour Government, urging it to help return to the villagers of Aberfan more than Pounds 150,000, which he claims may have been unlawfully taken from them after the 1966 tragedy.

Professor McLean's letter is addressed to the secretary of state for Wales, Ron Davies. It asks him to help persuade the residual bodies which inherited the liabilities of British Coal to return to the people of Aberfan money which McLean says was "bullied" out of the disaster fund.

Only this year did the government papers surrounding the horror finally become available to the public. Using papers from the Public Record Office McLean has reconstructed the events.

A tribunal of inquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Edmund Davies, produced a report following the tragedy which blamed the National Coal Board. Nine named officials of the board were blamed individually and the report was particularly scathing about the behaviour of the board and its chairman, Lord Robens.

Yet despite the damning report, nobody was prosecuted, dismissed or even demoted. The villagers of Aberfan continued to live with two 100-foot high slag heaps towering above what remained of their devastated village. The villagers cited documents from the tribunal report which suggested the remaining waste was not safe. But the coal board refused to pay to remove them and finally it fell to the Aberfan Disaster Fund, a charity set up in the wake of the disaster, to put Pounds 150,000 towards removing the menacing heaps.

It is this use of charity money which concerns McLean. According to the professor, the decision by trustees of the charity to use the fund's money to remove the heaps was not only "bitterly controversial, but probably also unlawful." In his letter to Mr Davies, McLean says that according to the trust deed, the Aberfan Disaster Fund was established for "the relief of all persons who have suffered and are thereby in need, and for any charitable purpose for the benefit of inhabitants".

McLean says: "Although I am not a trust lawyer, I do not think that the contribution to removing the tips was lawful under either heading. I find the story, as it unfolds from the public records of 1966-68, of how Lord Robens bullied the trustees of the fund (and even the government of the day) deeply shocking."

McLean adds that no one would want to sue the trustees of the time. "The trustees should have got the Charity Commission behind them," he says. "But I am not criticising them for the decision they took. They were under intolerable circumstances."

In his letter to Mr Davies, which he has copied to constit- uency MPs Ted Rowlands and Kim Howells, McLean seeks a goodwill gesture 30 years on. He writes: "Given that the coal board so shamelessly failed to meet its legal and moral responsibilities, it would be a very appropriate gesture if you could persuade the residual body which has inherited the liabilities of British Coal to meet them now.

"I have no authority to speak for anybody in Aberfan, but I know that villagers are anxious that the cemetery and the memorial garden no longer have adequate endowment for their upkeep. Pounds 150,000 of 1968 money would be much more than that.

"But even reimbursing the original Pounds 150,000 would be a gesture which would show that you have not forgotten Aberfan."

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