11 Apr 2013

Calls mount for Pike River prosecutions

10:37 pm on 11 April 2013

Calls are growing for former Labour Department managers to be prosecuted over the Pike River mine disaster.

A report commissioned by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) concludes that systemic failures in the former Department of Labour and Ministry of Economic Development may have been a major factor in the deaths of miners.

Twenty-nine men died after a series of explosions that began at the West Coast mine on 19 November 2010. Only two workers managed to get out to safety.

MBIE chief executive David Smol said the report, made public on Wednesday night, shows the failures by the former Labour Department stemmed partly from the introduction of a new Health and Safety Act in 1992.

Mr Smol said the government failed to put in codes of practice and detailed regulation after the new law came in, and these were needed to make the legislation effective.

Harry Bell, a chief mines inspector in the 1990s, says the Labour Department is prosecuting drilling company Valley Longwall International and Peter Whittall, the former chief executive of Pike River Coal, over the disaster - but police should be looking at the department.

Mr Bell said on Thursday he opposed the sweeping away of the mining health and safety regulations and later warned the government in a letter that the new approach would fail.

He believed that people high up in the Department of Labour and government politicians must be held responsible.

"As far as I'm concerned, the police should be doing the prosecuting, because the Labour Department it's been proven by the commission how poor they were and how ineffective they were. And here they are prosecuting other people. How stupid is that?"

Green Party MP Kevin Hague said the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which now houses the Labour group, must prosecute itself, since attempts to bring a private prosecution are too hard.

"The critical thing that a prosecution would achieve is that it would challenge this hands-off culture, this lack of responsibility culture that very clearly has pervaded the Department of Labour - and not only in recent years, but right back to the 1990s."

Mr Hague described the independent report as "a butt-covering waste of paper and waste of time".

"It whitewashes all of those involved in the senior management of the department who actually could have done something to have averted this sort of tragedy and doesn't sheet home responsibility to successive governments ... who have created that environment."

The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union is demanding that those in government who deregulated the mining industry in 1992 be held responsible for the Pike River disaster.

EPMU national secretary Ged O'Connell told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme on Thursday that the report should have named those in government who made decisions to deregulate the industry and failed to adequately resource departments.

"Who is the Cabinet minister that gave undertakings on those codes of practice but never followed them through? Who is the Cabinet minister who decided we didn't need them? Because the reality is, those actions were the ones that led some 20 years later to the deaths of 29 men."

Law change not to blame for tragedy - Birch

But the Minister of Labour in 1992 says sweeping changes he made to mining health and safety are not responsible for what happened at Pike River.

Sir William (Bill) Birch said governments have had 20 years since the act was introduced to address any concerns, and the problems must have arisen with the companies and operational practices since.

He believed the law has proven its suitability. "It raises the question of why weren't they addressed if they were obvious deficiencies in the legislation - I don't believe they were. I think systemic failure is more about people not putting the systems in place."

Sir William said the reforms brought New Zealand out of the dark ages and no one is suggesting that the country go back there.

The current Minister of Labour, Simon Bridges, said on Thursday that individuals should not be held accountable for the Pike River disaster.

"I think the fact of the matter is here we're dealing with primarily systemic failings and so there is a tension between accountability and fairness to employees.

"Whilst those actions didn't help - certainly they probably hindered what happened here - ultimately, it was a system-wide failing that led to this."

Families want accountability

The independent report said there is no evidence of carelessness, incompetence or breach of policy by any staff that warrants an employment investigation.

But the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment's chief executive David Smol said no employment action is being taken against any staff responsible for assessing the mining permit.

A spokesperson for a number of the victims' families, Bernie Monk, said it was refreshing that a government department finally admitted it was at fault, but the families are gutted that no one is to be held accountable.

"What the families have got to do now, is they've got to make sure that there is going to be law changes."

The former health and safety manager at the Pike River mine says believes the report did not go far enough. Neville Rockhouse, whose son was one of those killed, says the report should have looked in more detail into what went wrong so changes can be made.

Carol Rose, who lost her son, said relatives are coping with the fact that the disaster was preventable but no one is held accountable and that the men's bodies have still not been recovered.

Report's findings

The report examined how the ministry's own systems and staff contributed to the tragedy.

It said Pike Rivers Coal's initial mining permit was handled by the Economic Development Ministry in a light-handed way and, because of this, concerns about the miner's level of geological knowledge of the area didn't arise.

The ministry's policy at the time was to process such mining applications as quickly as possible, and health and safety considerations were explicitly excluded.

The Department of Labour, as the mine's regulator, was not firm enough with Pike River Coal and in one instance failed to issue a prohibition notice when it should have.