This research into the sequels to the Aberfan disaster (21 October 1966; death toll 144, of whom 109 were children at school) has used newly released archives and interviews to:
· Explain why no manager or corporate body was forced to take responsibility for the disaster;
· Account for the diversion of money from the charitable Disaster Fund to the removal of unstable coal tips above Aberfan (money that was repaid, although not uprated for inflation or interest forgone, by the Secretary of State for Wales in 1997);
· Examine whether the corporatist climate of the 1960s, which permitted the above to occur, has given way to a more pro-consumer climate of regulation.;
· Analyse the impact of disaster on a small local authority with few resources;
· Study the long-term consequences for a devastated community;
· Analyse what has changed and what has not in the English & Welsh legal system, in relation to tort compensation for bereavement and to corporate liability for negligence leading to death.
The findings include:
· The failure to hold anybody responsible was rooted in the 'high politics' of the 1960s and 1970s. Government needed the leaders of the National Coal Board (NCB) for a national policy purpose, namely running down the coal industry without provoking strikes. As the NCB leadership knew that governments believed them to be indispensable, they were able to behave in the ways listed above.
· The Charity Commission, constrained by its outdated legal framework, did nothing to protect donors and beneficiaries from the improper diversion of charitable funds into tip removal. The regulatory climate has improved, but charity regulation remains a problematic area.
· Safety regulation is more pro-consumer now than in 1966, but multiple objectives delay disaster inquiries.
· Government and local authorities are probably better prepared for disaster now than then, but for accidental reasons unconnected with Aberfan.
· The long-term consequences of a disaster such as Aberfan have been neither recognised nor studied. A study complementary to ours is now in progress.
· The law relating to compensation for bereavement is based on bad economic reasoning. The law on corporate liability for negligence has changed since 1966, but it is still very difficult to bring successful prosecutions for manslaughter.
At 09.15 on 21 October 1966, the active waste tip from Merthyr Vale Colliery slid down Merthyr Mountain and engulfed Pantglas Junior School and several houses in the mining village of Aberfan, which is situated about 5 miles from Merthyr and about 25 miles from Cardiff in the Taf valley. The death toll in the disaster was 144, of whom 109 were schoolchildren. About half the pupils at Pantglas Junior School, and five of their teachers, were killed. The Wilson government immediately appointed a Tribunal of Inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. The Tribunal reported in July 1967. Its report (Davies 1967) was fiercely critical of the National Coal Board (NCB) and of its chairman, Lord Robens of Woldingham, PC. It uncovered numerous ignored warnings. They include a long correspondence between the local authority and the NCB's Area Mechanical Engineer headed 'Danger from Coal Slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas School' (1963-4). These and many other documents are on our web site at http://www.nuffield.ox.ac.uk/politics/aberfan/home.htm, which should be read in conjunction with this report.
Despite the tone of the Tribunal Report, no NCB employee or Board member was demoted, dismissed, or prosecuted, nor did the Board face any corporate sanctions after the disaster. There was no prosecution either for manslaughter or for any regulatory offence. A proportion of the huge, charitable, Disaster Fund was diverted for the purpose of removing the remaining coal tips from above Aberfan, beginning in 1969. In 1970, Lord Robens was appointed to chair the departmental committee on health and safety at work which paved the ground for the main current regulatory statute, the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.
The first public records relating to Aberfan were released in 1996 (class BD 52, records of the Tribunal, released early by the Welsh Office in accordance with the terms of the 1992 White Paper on Open Government). As part of the piloting of the database being generated by my (IM) previous ESRC project, L124251054 'A history of the organisation of central government departments', I studied the Aberfan records in the general 1997 release. These showed how and why some of the events in the last paragraph occurred. They suggested that Aberfan might be seen as a disaster of corporatism, in which government and producers combined to ignore the interests of citizens and consumers. They contained specific evidence of failure by one regulatory agency (HM Inspectorate of Mines and Quarries), and pointed to possible failure by another (the Charity Commission), although the main files relating to the latter were not due to be released until 1999 or 2000.
I secured a grant from the British Academy (their reference APN 6714) to conserve and catalogue records in Merthyr Tydfil and Dowlais Public Libraries that I discovered in this preliminary phase. I appointed Mr (now Dr) MO Johnes as the research officer on that project. The work was completed on time and within budget, and the catalogue is on our web site (address above).
The output of my work up to this point is in McLean 1997 and various other writings, all listed on REGARD as part of the output of L124251054. In July 1997, the Secretary of State for Wales ordered the return of the money that had been diverted into tip removal to the Aberfan Disaster Fund, citing me as one of those who had persuaded him to do so.
This work aroused substantial public and media interest. It became clear that the public and local records already released held more evidence about corporatism and regulatory failure, and that those yet to be released were likely to hold more still. This encouraged me to apply for the project which is the subject of this report, with Dr Johnes again working as the project research officer.
The aims and objectives of the project, as originally stated, were:
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:
· To establish why the regulatory agencies failed to protect either the general public or the people of Aberfan before and after the disaster.
· To examine the processes leading up to the Pearson Commission's (1978) decision not to recommend changes in the law relating to compensation, and to the Law Commission's (1996) proposals to change the law relating to corporate liability for deaths and injuries
· To document the near administrative breakdown of Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council after the disaster, and its implications for disaster management
· To document the limited input from statutory and voluntary social service agencies to Aberfan after the disaster; establish whether greater input would have softened the devastating impact of the disaster on the community and/or improved the management of the Disaster Fund; see whether any lessons from Aberfan for disaster management have been learned.
We have met these objectives in full.
To collect data for each of our objectives we proceeded as outlined in our application.
Regulatory agencies. On HM Inspectorate of Mines and Quarries, we read extensively in the newly opened Public Records, especially classes POWE 52 and COAL 73; read the publications of HM Inspectorate and of other inspectorates now under the wing of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE); interviewed a large number of witnesses, from Sir Geoffrey Wilson, who was a junior to Stafford Cripps at the 1935 Gresford Colliery disaster inquiry, to Jenny Bacon, the present Director of the HSE, and two of her senior colleagues. Numerous other witnesses, including Desmond Ackner, Geoffrey Howe, Margaret Thatcher, Barbara Castle, Kenneth Barnes, and C.H Sisson, kindly wrote to us about their relevant experiences. We collected data about the practices of all the transport inspectorates in relation to accidents and disasters, and read all the relevant accident reports, including that on the Titanic (Mersey 1912). We have a paper in press on regulatory failure and the Titanic disaster inquiry.
On the Charity Commission, we were granted early access, ahead of their normal 30-year release, to some of the relevant files (arranged through the good offices of Malcolm Todd, their Assistant Departmental Record Officer). We were surprised and disappointed to find that the Aberfan case file has not survived - most surprising in the light of the size and political sensitivity of the Aberfan Disaster Fund. However, we have reconstructed the story from other sources, including the archives listed in our application (section 4, Research Design). The resulting paper is one of the nominated publications included with this report.
On the law relating to compensation for bereavement and to corporate liability (civil and criminal) for negligent or reckless behaviour, we read the relevant case and statute law and discussed the legal issues with lawyers practising in the field. Each of these areas forms one chapter in our forthcoming book, and we pre-tested our findings on audiences of academic lawyers in Southampton and Oxford.
Merthyr Council This work was completed as anticipated, using documents generated by the council and the Coal Board, the local media, and witnesses' recollections. It has been accepted for Welsh History Review and forms a chapter in our forthcoming book. Our findings were presented in a seminar to the Humanities Faculty at Cardiff University.
The management of trauma; the right management of disaster funds. We interviewed several survivors of the disaster and a psychiatrist involved in treating them. However, because of the obvious issues of clinical confidentiality and research ethics (see also 2.9 below), we did not attempt to interview a representative sample of survivors, still less attempt to evaluate their symptoms. We established excellent links with a project funded by the NHS in Wales to conduct a 30-year follow-up study of child survivors of the disaster (Principal Investigator Dr Jane Scourfield, Dept of Psychological Medicine, University of Wales Hospital, Cardiff). We collaborate on a regular basis with the PI and Research Officer of that project, as each project has specialist information that the other cannot access. The Cardiff project entered the field in early 1999. It will not be in a position to report its findings until a year or more after the date of this report. We hope to co-publish with them in this field. We made an extensive study of the written evidence, including the minutes of the Disaster Fund, and interviewed witnesses and read papers relating to the lessons of Aberfan for more recent disaster funds.
We collected data on the amounts raised in disaster appeals since Aberfan, converting them to constant prices. This work continues with attempts to find out the amounts raised in pre-1966 disaster appeals. When we have sufficient data to make reliable inferences, we will fit a statistical model to predict the size of disaster funds. (At this stage of research, the predictor accounting for the largest proportion of variance in the model is the number of princesses killed. However, the Diana Memorial Fund is not strictly a disaster fund, and it will be excluded from the final statistical model).
Each of our empirical investigations, together with the work done before the start of this project, has been brought together in a book, Aberfan: government and disasters. The concluding chapter of the book compares the initial hypothesis that Aberfan was ignored after the disaster because of the corporatist nature of the relevant policy network with other hypotheses, such as those of Hechter (1975) and Bulpitt (1983, 1986) on the powerlessness of the periphery. The book MS (100,000 words approx) is ready to submit at the same time as this report. It will be published by Welsh Academic Press on 21 October 2000, the 35th anniversary of the disaster. It will be physically ready before then, but we and the publishers have decided to publish on that day to ensure maximum impact for our findings.
Our archival research tended to confirm that Aberfan was a disaster of corporatism. However, the analytical framework suggested by Bulpitt (1983, 1986) was also helpful. The NCB and its senior officers escaped scot-free because the governments of the late 1960s and early 1970s needed their help in the 'high politics' of running down the coal industry without provoking a national strike. There was no concept of 'making the polluter pay' in British public administration at the time, and a nationalised industry was treated as if it were a government department. Therefore, policymakers thought that it would be futile to make the NCB pay the environmental (or even the direct) costs of the disaster, as such a payment would merely increase its deficit, which fell to be funded out of general taxation in any case. The interests of the people of Aberfan, and of donors to the Aberfan Disaster Fund, did not count as 'high politics'. Neither group had access to policymakers. The first lived in an overwhelmingly safe seat. Even though Labour lost it in the 1970 General Election, partly because of Aberfan, this was not enough to direct the attention of governments of either party to its interests. The second were dispersed around the country, and indeed the world. Complaints that the diversion of the Disaster Fund's money to removing the NCB's tips was an improper use of a charitable fund seem never even to have reached policymakers' consciousness, let alone to have provoked any response.
The consumer interest has advanced considerably since Aberfan. The regulatory regime, both for charities and for transport safety, is considerably more pro-consumer than it was then. The concept of making the polluter pay has a toehold in the policy community. The money taken improperly from the Disaster Fund was returned to it in 1997, as recorded above (although at the nominal level at which it was abstracted in 1969 without uprating for inflation or interest forgone, which would have multiplied the sum returned to the Fund by about 12).
The law relating to corporate negligence is much more attentive to victims now than in 1966, although the Law Commission's 1996 proposals in this area have not yet been enacted. The Paddington (Ladbroke Grove) disaster of October 1999 may lead to their enactment. It has already shown how far the legal environment has changed. At Aberfan no regulatory offence was committed (because no miners were killed). At Ladbroke Grove, police remained on site at what they described as 'a crime scene' for two weeks after the disaster. Policymakers are more sensitive now than then to the problems of having a regulator inquire into its own possible regulatory failure.
On the other hand, the law relating to the tort compensation (if any) payable to the bereaved has essentially not changed since 1941, despite Aberfan and Hillsborough (another disaster in which a great many young people were killed). Damages for causing the death of a child or young person are negligible, and some lawyers argue that they should not be payable at all. We show that the English courts' judicial lawmaking in this area is based on weak economic reasoning and leaves room for perverse incentives.
We show that the preparedness of government and local authorities for disaster has improved since 1966. However this is largely because the Emergency Planning function of government had to find itself a role after the loss of legitimacy of the former Civil Defence programme and the end of the Cold War. Merthyr Tydfil is once again, as it was in 1966, one of the smallest all-purpose local authorities in England & Wales. Small is not necessarily beautiful for this purpose.
Our final results on the management of trauma will not be available for some time because of the need to proceed in step with the Cardiff research group (see above). But we have accumulated ample evidence to show that policymakers in 1966 and long afterwards grievously underestimated the length and depth of the trauma suffered by the survivors of Aberfan. We expect the Cardiff team to show, when their research is complete, that the prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (itself not defined as a psychiatric disorder until the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war) among Aberfan survivors remains high, thirty years or more after the disaster.
We have been very active in disseminating our research, which has generated the most intense media interest of any academic research either of us has done. We have both been interviewed on national network radio; on regional radio and television; and by an American TV programme-maker. Because our research is interdisciplinary, we have spoken to academic seminars in Law, Political Science, and History, in order to see whether our findings can be defended to scholars of very different disciplinary backgrounds. As promised in our application, we have continued to add items to the catalogues in our Web site, and put much of our data, including a selection of witness reports to the disaster itself, on to our site. We did this not only for their intrinsic interest, but also in the hope of relieving the burden on the Merthyr Tydfil library service. A high proportion of information requests to their Local History staff concern the Aberfan disaster, which is frequently studied by History, Geography, and Welsh students in upper secondary schools and in university Engineering and Geography departments. Our web site has led us into correspondence with engineers and others all over the world who have been touched by the Aberfan disaster. The following, from an Australian emergency planner, is representative:
I live in Cairns, Tropical Far North Queensland, a site of future disaster either from Tsunami, Cyclone, Storm Surge, Earthquake or Continental Shelf-shift, and so on through other man made events. Each year as a cyclone approaches we prepare fully to take it on knowing that this could be the one which will require 10,000 plus body bags.
Please let me congratulate you on the fine detail research in your work as Project Director for Aberfan. I am using the information in it for a couple of assignments I have to prepare. I hope you do not object. By re-looking at Aberfan after all this time, I have found that the grief I felt as a 13yr old boy on that dreadful day returned with such a physical force that I was shocked at the extent to which I had been affected. This despite years of Army, Police, Security Management, and other such hard nosed professions which I have undertaken. Thank you for your work. I hope I am never the subject of your tenacity.
If you ever contact any of those kids or families who were involved, please pass on my address to them, and give them the message from me that not only the 'Grown Ups' of that time cared. So did millions of us kids who felt as though we had lost mates. I will never live without Aberfan, or without the scar it has left in my heart.
The published outputs of the project have all been reported directly to REGARD on publication. Briefly, they will include:
IM and MJ, Aberfan: government and disasters Cardiff: Welsh Academic Press 2000 (MS to be delivered by 31.12.99; publication date fixed for 21.10.00)
Papers in refereed journals
IM and MJ, Regulating Gifts of Generosity: the Aberfan Disaster Fund and the Charity Commission, Legal Studies 19, 1999, pp. 380--96
IM and MJ, 'Regulation run mad: the Board of Trade and the loss of the Titanic', Public Administration 78, 2000
MJ, 'Uneasy relationships: the Aberfan disaster, Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council and local politics', Welsh History Review June 2000.
MJ, Aberfan and the Management of Trauma, Disasters: The Journal of Disaster Studies, Policy and Management, 24:1, March 2000
Papers in non-refereed journals
Two papers by MJ in Planet: the Welsh Internationalist
Disasters by MJ, to be published in Encyclopedia of British Football edited by R. Cox, D. Russell & W. Vamplew. ABC Clio, 2002
6 national and one international (USA) TV appearances
7 network and 1 local radio appearances.
News reports connected with the above, repeated on all bulletins throughout day on each station which carried them.
Interview for BBC Radio Wales Millennium history of Wales
12 national and 3 local articles or features by us or about our work
Articles by IM and MJ for Headway (Aberfan and Merthyr Vale Community Newspaper), and for Hughes (1999). We have also donated copies of articles by ourselves and other academics to Aberfan Community Library.
'After disaster', Coventry, 25--26 April 2000. See Dissemination below.
Echoes of a Tragedy: The Legacy of the Aberfan Disaster, Paper by MJ given to Wales and the Welsh Conference, Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, Aberystwyth, 11-15 April 2000.
Safety, Politics and Fans: Regulatory Responses to Football Disasters in the UK, Paper given by MJ to British Society for Sports History conference, University of Liverpool, 28-29 April 2000.
This research has had a substantial impact locally, nationally, and internationally. In Wales, it has raised the question whether Aberfan would have been treated better had Wales had a devolved government in 1966, and whether the existence of the National Assembly could prevent any repetition of the treatment Aberfan then received (e.g., Morgan 1999). At UK policy level, it has pointed to the still unresolved issues around disasters. These include the appropriate level of tort compensation for bereavement; the appropriate sanctions against negligent companies; the optimal independence of regulators; and the tangled interaction among inquest (in England & Wales), criminal prosecution, regulatory action, public inquiry, and civil litigation. As we have shown, these can tumble over one anothers feet. These issues will continue to be prominent in the public debate on the Southall (1997) and Ladbroke Grove (1999) rail accidents. They will be aired at the dissemination conference we have organised for April 2000, jointly with the Centre for Disaster Studies (Coventry University and the Fire Service College). We have collaborated with representatives of Disaster Action (a registered charity for disaster survivors and the bereaved) who feel that our results will help them greatly. Internationally, we have revived awareness of Aberfan and the policy issues surrounding it, especially by means of our website, which has received 7602 hits since logging of it began in June 1998. We have corresponded with a number of overseas users of our data; have recorded interviews for a History Channel programme (USA), and have a chapter in a Canadian-led book project.
We will present our findings relating to disaster inquiries, bereavement damages and corporate manslaughter to the Home Office in the hope of influencing the ongoing review of the relevant legislation.
Too little is still known about the intensity and length of trauma suffered by disaster survivors. The work currently in progress on Aberfan (see above) should be replicated by other long-term studies. These could be moderated by Disaster Action, which could give researchers access to disaster survivors and relatives.
We have discussed with Prof. Ronald Lewis (History) from West Virginia University, USA the possibility of a comparative and collaborative study of the Aberfan and Buffalo Creek disasters. Another possible extension is into the comparative study of 19th- and 20-th century government response to disasters.
Most studies of the political economy of regulation have concerned price and quantity regulation. The political economy perspective should be applied systematically to safety regulation.
Corporate executives could benefit from learning how and where it is appropriate to say sorry, and to accept corporate liability for a human-made disaster. The best model here is British Rails corporate acceptance of liability immediately after the Clapham disaster (1989).
As stated in our initial application, there are ethical problems about doing research in and on Aberfan. From the beginning, the community has been wary about allowing outsiders access for research. We have remained in touch with community leaders in Aberfan throughout this research. We have asked their opinions before approaching any other local people. We have not visited Aberfan except for direct research purposes. As stated in our application, it has been a cardinal principle of this research that we do not intrude where we are not wanted. We have not named any victim of the disaster in our publications, even when the names are in the public domain. The trust and goodwill we have won in Aberfan is demonstrated by the Chairman of the Memorial Committee writing the foreword for our book. Both we and our publishers are donating a proportion of our royalties from the book to the Memorial Fund.
As reported above, all our published output has been logged on to REGARD via their website.
Raising awareness that the issues of Aberfan and the limitations of the law have not all been settled. See section 2.
We have been very active here, as the list of our publications and media reports of our activity shows. We played a large part behind the scenes in getting Hughes (1999) published, after the editor ran into some problems with printers and financing.
Together with Dr Anne Eyre (Coventry Centre for Disaster Management), we are organising a conference 'After disaster: addressing management issues' on 25 and 26 April 2000 at Coventry University. The conference aims to bring together academics, practitioners and survivors to discuss key issues in disaster management and to develop practical recommendations. The panels will cover:
· Compensating Loss: Bereavement Damages and Disaster Funds
· Corporate Responsibility and Disasters
· Psycho-Social Impacts of Disasters
· Open Session (to enable those affected to bring issues of their choice to the conference)
When we started planning the conference, we did not know that the Ladbroke Grove disaster would occur. That disaster is only one of the events that will ensure that the conference is fully booked and widely reported.
We have been approached by HTV Wales who are interested in making a television documentary for the ITV network based upon our findings. Negotiations are currently ongoing.
IM and MJ, Regulating Gifts of Generosity: the Aberfan Disaster Fund and the Charity Commission, Legal Studies 19, 1999, pp. 38096
An extract (Chapters 7-9) from McLean and Johnes, Aberfan.
Much of our written material and data may be accessed through our web site
TITLE INITIALS SURNAME
Date of Birth
Destination Type & Post
Dr MO Johnes
Research Fellow in Contemporary Welsh History, School of History & Archaeology, Cardiff University
As reported above, we were surprised that the Aberfan case files at the Charity Commission appear not to have survived. However, we were able to work around this unexpected loss.
Professor Celia Wells
Cardiff Law School
PO Box 427
Cardiff, CF10 3XJ.
Bulpitt, J. (1983), Territory and Power in the United Kingdom Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Bulpitt, J. (1986), The discipline of the new democracy: Mrs Thatchers domestic statecraft. Political Studies 34, pp. 19--39.
Davies, E. (chairman) (1967), Report of the Tribunal appointed to inquire into the Disaster at Aberfan on October 21st, 1966 HL 316; HC 553. London: HMSO.
Hechter, M. (1975), Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966 (London: Routledge).
Hughes M. ed. (1999), Aberfan our Hiraeth an anthology in poetry, prose, and pictures Aberfan: Aberfan & Merthyr Vale Community Co-operative.
McLean, I. (1997), On moles and the habits of birds: the Unpolitics of Aberfan, 20th Century British History, 8, pp. 285--309.