Corporatism and Regulatory Failure:

Government Response to the Aberfan Disaster

Funded by the Economic & Social Research Council

Project Director: Professor Iain McLean

Research Officer: Dr Martin Johnes

In September 1998 the above project began thanks to a grant of 40,908 from the ESRC. It ran until September 1999. Its findings will be published as a book, (publication date: 21 October 2000, the 34th anniversary of the tragedy.)

View End-of-Award Report. Project graded 'outstanding' by ESRC, May 2000.

Project Outline

Formulation of the Problem

At 9.15 am on October 21, 1966, a colliery waste tip from Merthyr Vale Colliery slid down Merthyr Mountain and into the mining village of Aberfan. It engulfed Pantglas Junior School, smothering to death 109 children in their classrooms, and five of their teachers. They had just returned there from school assembly, at which they had sung All Things Bright and Beautiful. The total death toll was 144 humans (116 children and 28 adults) and a small number of farm animals. On hearing news of the disaster, Lord Robens of Woldingham, PC, the chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB), did not go immediately to Aberfan, preferring to proceed with his installation as Chancellor of the University of Surrey. However, NCB sources wrongly told the Secretary of State for Wales that Lord Robens was personally directing relief work. When he reached Aberfan, Lord Robens attributed the disaster to ‘natural unknown springs’ beneath the tip. This was known by all the local people to be incorrect. The NCB had been tipping on top of springs that are shown on maps of the neighbourhood and in which village schoolboys had played. The Wilson government immediately appointed a Tribunal of Inquiry which reported in August 1967 (Davies 1967). It was unsparing.

Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board….The legal liability of the National Coal Board to pay compensation for the personal injuries (fatal or otherwise) and damage to property is incontestable and uncontested.

These dry conclusions belie the passion of the preceding text. The Tribunal was appalled by the behaviour of the National Coal Board and some of its employees, both before and after the disaster: ‘[T]he Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above. Colliery engineers at all levels concentrated only on conditions underground. In one of its most memorable phrases, the Report described them as ‘like moles being asked about the habits of birds’. The Tribunal endorsed the comment of Desmond Ackner QC (now Lord Ackner), counsel for the Aberfan Parents’ and Residents’ Association, that Coal Board witnesses had tried to give the impression that ‘the Board had no more blameworthy connection with this disaster than, say, the Gas Board’. It devoted a section of its report to ‘the attitude of the National Coal Board’ and of Lord Robens. It forthrightly condemned both. One of the kinder things it says about Lord Robens is:

For the National Coal Board … thus to invite the Tribunal to ignore the evidence given by its Chairman was … both remarkable and, in the circumstances, understandable. Nevertheless, the invitation is one which we think it right to accept (Davies 1967, p.91)

In the face of this report, it now seems surprising that nobody was prosecuted, dismissed, or demoted; and that Lord Robens’ offer to resign as NCB chairman, which even at the time was seen as perfunctory, was rejected. Other events that now seem surprising followed. In August 1968, the Government forced the Trustees of the Aberfan Disaster Fund to pay a contribution to the cost of removing the remaining NCB tips from above Aberfan. These tips were in a place and condition in which, according to the NCB’s own technical literature, they should never have been. In August 1968, the trustees agreed to contribute 150,000 towards removing them. This decision was bitterly controversial. Some people wrote to Ministers to complain that it was inconsistent with the charitable objectives of the Fund; Ministers’ replies did not address the point. A trust lawyer who has looked on our behalf at the Trust Deed has expressed great surprise that the donation could have been regarded as lawful under charity law. Since writing McLean (1997) we have discovered that, contrary to the supposition made there, the Trustees did consult the Charity Commission, who appear to have advised them that the contribution towards removing the tips was lawful.

Bizarrely as it now seems, it was Lord Robens whom the relevant Minister (Barbara Castle) chose in 1969 to chair the committee that reviewed the extant law on health and safety at work. The Robens Committee led to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which has regulated that subject in the UK ever since. The regulator is now the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), a Non-Departmental Public Body. Compensation paid for each dead child was set at 500, which the NCB called ‘a generous offer’. It was little more than the amount paid out per farm animal. The Pearson Commission (1978) recommended no change in this state of affairs. Lord Robens gave evidence to the Pearson Commission; the Aberfan Parents’ and Residents’ Association did not.

The Aberfan disaster has recently returned to public attention. The opening of public records under the 30-year rule has revealed new information, especially about the behaviour of the National Coal Board, the Ministry of Power, the Welsh Office and ministers in the Wilson government, in the aftermath of the disaster. This led Iain McLean (IM) to write several newspaper features and an academic article about the failure of the Wilson government to hold anybody responsible for the disaster. IM sent the academic article (‘On moles and the habits of birds: the unpolitics of Aberfan’, 20th Century British History 8, 1997) to Ron Davies, Secretary of State for Wales, immediately after the change of government in May 1997. In his covering letter, he asked the present government to consider repaying the 150,000 just mentioned to the still extant Aberfan Memorial Trust, which maintains the cemetery where most of the victims are buried, and the memorial garden on the site of Pantglas Junior School. On 31.7.97, Mr Davies did exactly that, citing IM as one of the people who had led him to that decision.

The research problems may thus be formulated as: how was nobody called to account for the disaster? And has Aberfan had any enduring impact on policy?

Previous Work

The Davies Tribunal (Davies 1967) did its work excellently, and a lot of the basic facts have been known since it reported. Austin (1967) adds eyewitness reports. Miller (1974) is based on the experiences of the (solitary) social worker who was seconded to Aberfan for a year after the disaster. Madgewick (1996 – written in 1970) is a moving account by a 8-year old survivor.

However, it was the release of papers in January 1997 that opened the floodgates for new work. The Public Record Office (PRO) and the relevant departments decided to release all Aberfan records on that date, an early release for most of them as they relate to events in 1967-70. IM’s first article on this, based on the Press preview on 30 and 31 December 1996, appeared in The Observer on 5.1.97. The Times Higher, intrigued by the reference to Lord Dearing, then at the Ministry of Power, commissioned a further article, which appeared on 17.1.97. The fullest statement of our findings to date is McLean (1997). Briefly, they are:

McLean (1997) characterises the policy failures after Aberfan as failures of corporatism. The proposed research will further test this hypothesis and compare its performance with others’.

Aims and Objectives

General aim: to improve our understanding of the politics of regulatory capture, of disaster management, and of how political institutions incorporate lessons from history; at all stages to accumulate data and add any that are not already known to our extant Web catalogue. Specific objectives towards that aim:

Research Design; data collection and analysis

The research will be based on archives and interviews. We will commence with a review of the following literatures:

on the management of post-disaster trauma:

The bereaved of Aberfan were not offered much counselling; what they were offered is described in Lacey (1972) and Miller (1974). There is now a large body of literature on the long-term trauma suffered by disaster survivors (see, e.g., Joseph et al 1997 – the latest of a series of papers on the Herald of Free Enterprise – and Marks et al 1995 on the aircrew who survived the Kegworth disaster).

on the evolution of the law on corporate liability from Aberfan via the Pearson Commission (1978), the abortive prosecution of the operators of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the successful prosecution for corporate manslaughter in R v. Active Learning and Leisure Ltd (the Lyme Regis canoeing tragedy) to the recent proposals of the Law Commission (1996) to change the law in this area. A useful overview is Wells (1993).

For both purposes we will re-read the disaster reports, e.g. on Hillsborough (Taylor 1989), the Herald of Free Enterprise (Sheen 1987), Kings Cross (Fennell 1988), Clapham (Hidden 1989), the Marchioness ([Marriott] 1991) and Dunblane (Cullen 1996), and continue with both the academic and the practitioner literature arising out of the disasters mentioned in the last two paragraphs. We wish to determine whether, and if so when, public policy became less attentive to producers and more attentive to consumers than it was in 1966-70.

Archival research will cover the archives listed on our Web site that we have not already explored. We expect the following to be particularly important:

We will seek a Press pass on 31.12.98 in order to get a first sight of the Charity Commission papers for 1968 at the PRO, and in 1999 will study both those and any departmental papers for 1968 which were not in the general Aberfan release.

Our first wave of interviews will be with survivors and other participants in the Tribunal process. Once the pattern of changes in regulation has been established, we will arrange a second wave of interviews with people who were policy-makers in the relevant agencies, including the Charity Commission, the Mines and Quarries Inspectorate, and the HSE.

Interpretation of anticipated results

We will find out whether our results are consistent with the hypothesis about corporatism in McLean (1997). We will compare it with other hypotheses. One is that the victims of Aberfan were ignored because they were working class. Another is that they were ignored because the outside world failed to understand the depth of their trauma, and that they were therefore dismissed as petty and quarrelsome. A third is that Wales is a long way from Whitehall, and that its neglect can be explained in terms of one or other of the models of centre-periphery politics, such as those proposed by Hechter (1975) and Bulpitt (1983).

Research ethics

After 30 years, Aberfan is still a place of tears. The cardinal principle of our interviewing is that we will not intrude where we are not wanted or where an interview could cause harm. All local interviews will be in consultation with village representatives, including trustees of the Memorial Fund. We will continue the policy of McLean (1997) not to discuss individual victims or their parents, even though these are named in documents now in the public domain.


Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council (MTCBC) has been involved since the beginning of this research. The previous British Academy grant was sought because MTCBC recognised that its records were precious but it had no money to catalogue them. The demands on its library were increasing – about 1/5 of all queries to their information officer relate to the Aberfan disaster – and may be expected to increase still further as the Aberfan disaster has been listed as a case study for National Curriculum Geography students in upper secondary schools. The output of this project will be made available to those students and their teachers.

The media (Welsh and national) have already used this work extensively and will continue to do so. IM was able to show representatives of BBC Wales and HTV which records would be of most interest to them as they compiled their own ‘Aberfan after thirty years’ stories on 1.1.97. For more on this, see ‘Dissemination’ below.

When the research is complete, the results will be discussed with both of the main policy networks affected: the safety regulation and charity regulation networks. The most active question in safety regulation is whether the law adequately protects the public when corporate negligence leads to fatalities. The most active question in charity regulation is the proper management of disaster and similar funds: a question which will be highly topical throughout the life of this project.

Appendix: References

Austin, Tony (1967) Aberfan: the story of a disaster London: Hutchinson

Bulpitt, J. (1983): Territory and power in the United Kingdom: an interpretation Manchester: Manchester University Press

Cullen, Douglas (Lord) (1996), Inquiry into the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the events at Dunblane Primary School on Wednesday 13 March 1996 Edinburgh: HMSO for the Scottish Office

Fennell, D. (1988) Investigation into the Kings Cross Underground Fire Cm 499 London: HMSO for the Department of Transport

Hechter, Michael (1975), Internal colonialism: the Celtic fringe in British national development, 1536-1966 London: Routledge

Hidden, A. (1989), Investigation into the Clapham Junction Railway Accident Cm 820 London: HMSO for the Department of Transport

Joseph S, Dalgleish T, Williams R, Yule W, Thrasher S, Hodgkinson P (1997), ‘Attitudes towards emotional expression and post-traumatic stress in survivors of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster’, Br J Clin Psychol Feb;36( Pt 1):133-138

Lacey, G. N. (1972), ‘Observations on Aberfan’. Jnl Psychosomatic Research 6 257-60

Law Commission (1996) Legislating the Criminal Code: involuntary manslaughter Law Commission Report no. 237, HC 171/1996. London: HMSO

McLean, I. (1997), ‘On moles and the habits of birds: the unpolitics of Aberfan’, 20th Century British History 8 285-309.

Madgewick, Gaynor (1996) Aberfan: struggling out of the darkness : a survivor's story Blaengarw: Valley and Vale

Marks M, Yule W, de Silva P, (1995) ‘Post-traumatic stress disorder in airplane cabin crew attendants’, Aviat Space Environ Med Mar;66(3):264-268

[Marriott, P. B.], (1991) Report of the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents into the collision between the passenger launch Marchioness and MV Bowbelle with loss of life on the River Thames on 20 August 1989 London: H.M.S.O for Dept of Transport

Miller, Joan B, (1974) Aberfan: a disaster and its aftermath London: Constable

Observer (1997) ‘Heartless bully who added to agony of Aberfan’, 5 January

Sheen, Barry, Sir, (1987) mv Herald of Free Enterprise: report of Court no. 8074 formal investigation London: H.M.S.O for Department of Transport

Pearson, Lord (chairman) (1978) Report of the Royal Commission on civil liability and compensation for personal injury Cmnd 7054-I. London: HMSO

Taylor, Sir Peter, (1989), The Hillsborough Stadium disaster, 15 April 1989: inquiry by the Rt. Hon Lord Justice Taylor: final report Cm 962 London: HMSO

Times Higher Education Supplement (1997), ‘It’s not too late to say sorry’, 17 January.

Wells, Celia (1993), Corporations and criminal responsibility Oxford: Clarendon Press

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