PM on the Pike River Inquiry Report
Post-Cabinet Press Conference - 5 Nov 2012
Plus: Labour Leader David Shearer Comments
By Mark P. Williams
Today the Prime
Minister gave his response to the findings of the Royal
Commission into the Pike River Mine disaster that claimed
the lives of 29 mine workers. He called the report
The PM said that he welcomed the findings of the Commission and that the Government would be "broadly accepting" all of the 16 recommendations put forward but that some would require attention before they could be implemented. He said that Pike River Coal had "lost sight of its aim to be a productive an safe mine as the drive toward production intensified"
He detailed a number of systemic and operational factors which led to the "preventable tragedy" at the mine, identifying two interrelated areas: primarily, Pike River Coal itself and secondarily the regulatory environment it operated within:
- Pike River Coal
- A history of over-promising and under-delivering
- Coal production was years behind schedule
- Lack of money was driving the company to find further funding
- The business was new and its systems, including those for health and safety were in development
- Because Pike River
Coal did not follow best practice principles it exposed its
workers to health and safety risks; its health and safety
systems were inadequate. The report identified certain
major errors, including :
- Specific risks of hydro-mining, wind-blast and a gas explosion were raised in an insurance risk survey in July 2010; neither the board nor its committee ever saw the report
- The coal mine was the first in the world to put its main ventilation fan underground; this decision was not properly risk assessed and the board did not give it due consideration
- Methane sensors were either broken or unreliable at the time of the explosion.
- Under successive governments since 1992 the reach and influence of the Mining Inspectorate was eroded
- While the health and safety in employment act placed responsibility upon employers to ensure safe working conditions this was seen as reducing the responsibility of the Department of Labour to administrate
- At the time of the explosion the Department of Labour had only two Mining Inspectors to cover all the mines and quarries in New Zealand and who were thus unable to discharge their duties effectively
- The Inquiry found that the Department of Labour did not have the focus, capacity or strategy to ensure Pike River was meeting its legal responsibilities.
He also announced that the Hon Kate Wilkinson would resign as Labour Minister but retain her other portfolios. He said that her decision was a personal one in response to the tragedy; the Prime Minister described her resignation as the honourable thing to do.
The Prime Minister said that successive governments had contributed to the problem and expressed deep regret on the part of the Government for what has happened, the lives lost and the suffering caused.
The PM was asked about the resignation of Hon. Kate Wilkinson from the Ministry of Labour. He responded that he was satisfied that although none of her actions or inactions contributed to the tragedy, it was right for the Minister in charge to resign as a result of the findings.
The PM was then asked whether the more honourable thing would have been to resign from Cabinet altogether. He responded that there were very few precedents in this area, mentioning the British system by example, and said that Kate Wilkinson retained his confidence in her ability to administer her other portfolios.
The PM was then asked about the systemic nature of the failings. The PM responded that the culture had become too "trust-based", depending on the company to regulate its own safety efficiently. The PM stopped short of stating an intention to move New Zealand towards a more "prescriptive" regime of regulation.
The PM was asked whether he accepted the Commission's finding that there was a significant lack of health and safety across New Zealand, and whether he was reluctant to set up an independent entity to oversee workplace health and safety. He responded the government had not yet had time to consider whether setting up an independent Crown entity for health and safety would be "the right approach".
The PM was asked about the government's position on the recovery of the bodies from the mine. He stated that the government's position was that they would only do so in circumstances where it would not endanger the lives of those attempting to recover the bodies of the victims of the tragedy. He expressed sympathy for the families' and their need for closure but said he would only look at removing the bodies in the event of someone coming up with a safe and credible plan.
The PM was asked whether he would implement the recommendation that a workers' Union representative who could close the mine where there were genuine safety concerns. He responded that he felt it might be a valid thing to do, despite the possible disruption that it might cause, in light of the environment that the workers were expected to operate within.
The PM was asked whether the Labour government ought to accept some responsibility. He responded that he did not wish to "get into a blame-game" but emphasised that the issue was a longstanding one which dated back around twenty years.
The PM was asked whether the government would really change its philosophy towards regulation. He responded that it would inevitably lead to "a far more prescriptive regime".
The PM was then pressed again about the government attitude towards setting up an independent entity. He responded that he was not dismissing the idea but rather needed to take more advice as it was "quite a big call" to create an independent Crown body.
The PM was then asked whether he thought that putting responsibility for health and safety within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MoBIE) might be seen as allowing it to get lost or side-lined, given the ministry's brief to promote economic development might seem to be in conflict with a desire to regulate which produce "costs" and slow down innovation. The PM said he understood the argument but felt that it would enable health and safety principles to be put at the heart of longer term business sustainability.
The PM was challenged as to whether the ministry knew that they were woefully understaffed and receiving inadequate information. He responded that they believed that they had the situation under control even though the "situation on the ground" demonstrated that this was not the case at all.
The PM was asked whether it was a case of incompetence on the part of the Ministry or if the minister was being deceived about the nature of the situation. He responded that the first responsibility lay with the company and that he did not believe there was any active deception involved.
The PM was asked whether the papers he had reviewed from Kate Wilkinson's office had mentioned the proposal for a third inspector. He responded that there had been a proposal by the Mine Steering Group to the Workplace Services Management Team in 2010 but that it had never "been escalated" to Senior Management or the Minister in the Department of Labour. It was taken at "quite a low level" and "they decided it wasn't necessary".
The PM was asked if he had any knowledge of police investigations into Peter Whittle. He said he had not had any advice and would not comment.
The PM was asked if he was surprised with the under preparedness of the emergency services at the time. He responded that he was surprised but that it was something which would have to be learned from. He said that a taskforce of three ministers would be looking into the issue: Chris Finlayson, Acting Minister of Labour; Phil Heatley, Minister of Energy and Resources; Steven Joyce, Minister of Economic Development who would be working through the Royal Commission recommendations.
The PM was asked about further responsibility for company directors. He confirmed that this was an issue that was being looked into, as was the issue of corporate manslaughter. He added that this might be difficult in this instance given that the company was in receivership and reparations for corporate manslaughter were generally financial.
The PM was asked about his comment to RadioSport's Farming Show host Jamie MacKay about his "gay red top". He was asked what he understood "gay" to mean in that context. He responded that it meant "weird". Asked whether he saw it as a homophobic term he said it was a term in common usage and that if anyone was offended he was sorry.
The PM was asked about the comment he was reported to have made about UK soccer star David Beckham. He said that he would not comment. Pressed as to whether he was denying that he had made the comment or not he replied "I'm not going to engage in what some person has reported me saying that may or may not be correct".
The PM was then asked whether he thought David Beckham was smart. He replied, "He's made more money than I have."