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Learning From Disaster

In 1966 England won the World Cup. The media never tire of reminding us of this achievement.

Also in 1966, a Welsh community was devastated when a waste tip slid down a mountainside. At 9.15 am on Friday, 21st October 1966, the mining village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, was shattered by a slide which engulfed Pantglas Junior School, a farm, and some twenty houses before coming to rest. The debris – colliery waste liquefied by underground springs – killed 144 people, 116 of whom were children.

The media does not revisit Aberfan with as much enthusiasm as it does England's victory at Wembley Stadium. But one Oxford academic made it a part of his life's work to untangle what happened in the aftermath of the Aberfan tragedy. Professor Iain McLean's archival research, funded by the ESRC, exposed the price to be paid when corporate negligence wins out over sound health and safety practices, and when political spin trumps ethical rigour. Moreover, McLean's work has made a difference to public policy.

"Aberfan was an entirely preventable disaster, aptly characterised as a 'terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude' in the Tribunal of Inquiry's report of the 3rd of August, 1967," says McLean, Professor of Politics and Official Fellow at Nuffield College. "Excavated mining waste had been deposited on a ridge above the village over a period of fifty years, on top of a layer of sandstone underneath which there were underground springs. Numerous warnings about its instability were ignored. The actions of the National Coal Board (NCB) after the disaster only added insult to injury."

The landslide hit Pantglas Junior School just after the children had returned to their classes from morning assembly. They had just sung All Things Bright and Beautiful. The day was sunny on the mountain but foggy in the village, with visibility of about fifty yards. The tipping gang on the mountain had seen the slide start, but could not raise the alarm because their telephone cabling had been stolen. In any event, the landslide was so swift that a telephone warning would not have saved lives. Five of the teachers in the school were killed, along with around half of the pupils.

A year later, Laurie Lee, author of Cider with Rosie, visited Aberfan and captured the scene:

'Fragments of the school itself still lie embedded in the rubbish – chunks of green-painted classroom wall.... Even more poignant relics lie in a corner of the buried playground, piled haphazardly against a wall, – some miniature desks and chairs, evocative as a dead child's clothes, infant-sized, still showing the shape of their bodies. Among the rubble there also lie crumpled song-books, sodden and smeared with slime, the words of some bed-time song still visible on the pages surrounded by drawings of sleeping elves.'

The Tribunal of Inquiry – set up five days after the disaster– thoroughly investigated what happened at Aberfan. "The Tribunal's report, published in August 1967, was withering in its criticism of the NCB," says McLean. "It found that the NCB had located one of the tips on top of springs which are shown on an Ordnance Survey map. Slides had previously occurred; the NCB tried to deny this. In fact, the NCB wasted 76 days of inquiry time by refusing to admit liability which, in private, it had conceded."

McLean uncovered startling evidence of political manoeuvring and naked self-interest through his research into archive material released in January 1997. It was already known that the NCB chairman, Lord Robens, prioritised his investiture as Chancellor of the University of Surrey over travelling immediately to Aberfan, arriving a full 36 hours after the disaster. But there was further evidence of a bogus resignation and manipulation of the National Union of Mineworkers; positioning himself as the only politician who could avert mass miners' strikes, Robens survived.

Worse was to come. The Wilson government took £150,000 from the Aberfan Disaster Fund to pay for the removal of the remaining Aberfan tips – tips which belonged to the NCB. The conduct of the Charity Commission, not to mention the Ministry of Power, demonstrated a similar privileging of economic and financial interests over the needs of the victims.

McLean's findings were published in Aberfan: Government & Disasters, which he co-authored with Martin Johnes. The book's impact has been far-reaching. At the time of Aberfan, a prosecution for corporate manslaughter was an uphill struggle: it required proof of 'mens rea' – an intentional, guilty mind – in at least one employee of the NCB. Today we have the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. It may be forty years too late for Aberfan, but at least it makes it easier to secure convictions against mismanaged corporations.

Other changes have occurred. Policymakers now understand why a regulator must not inquire into its own possible regulatory failure, and McLean and Johnes' criticism of coronial failure at Aberfan contributed to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (the relevant section changing the powers of coroners was only implemented in July 2013). Attitudes to the victims of large-scale disasters is also markedly different and there are calls now to revisit the law on the mental traumas sustained by those who see their loved ones killed or harmed in a disaster.

'Corporate responsibility' is no longer a mere buzzword, it's something taken seriously by today's business leaders. This, too, is connected with McLean's research, which has also seen him work with Disaster Action, a group for survivors and analysts of a similar disaster at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, the Australian and New Zealand Disaster Management Conference (as well as the work of the UK Health and Safety Executive, Charity Commission and Welsh Assembly Government).

But perhaps the most poignant consequence of McLean's work on the lessons to be learned from Aberfan was the return in 2007 of £1.5 million - today's equivalent of the £150,000 taken by the Wilson government in 1967 - to the Aberfan Memorial Charity. McLean first urged this in 1997; now, at last, the memorials have a secure endowment.

Further information:

See http://www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/politics/aberfan/home.htm for further information and resources




Iain McLean