Alfred Robens, Baron Robens of Woldingham
Alfred Robens, Baron Robens of Woldingham, CBE PC (18 December 1910 – 27 June 1999) was an English trade unionist, Labour politician and industrialist. His political ambitions, including an aspiration to become Prime Minister, were frustrated by bad timing; but his energies were diverted into industry: he spent a decade as chair of the National Coal Board, and later headed a major inquiry which resulted in the Robens Report on health, safety and welfare at work. A firm believer in social engineering, his outlook was paternalistic, though in later life he moved away from his early socialism towards the Conservative Party. His reputation remains tarnished by his failure to have foreseen and prevented the Aberfan disaster, followed by actions widely regarded as insensitive and duplicitous during this disaster's aftermath.
Robens was born in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, the son of George Robens, a cotton salesman and Edith Robens née Anderton. He left school at 15 to work as an errand boy but his career truly began when he joined the Manchester and Salford Co-operative Society as a clerk, becoming a director when he was 22, one of the first Worker/Directors in the Country. He was an official in the Union of Distributive and Allied Workers from 1935 to 1945 and, being certified medically unfit for military service in World War II, he served as a Manchester City Councillor from 1941 to 1945. He married Eva Powell on 9 September 1936 and the couple adopted a son, Alfred (born 1935).
Following the War, in the dramatic Labour victory of 1945, Robens was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for the mining constituency of Wansbeck, Northumberland. Robens started on a sustained rise through the parliamentary ranks, serving in junior posts at the Ministry of Transport (1945–1947) and at the Ministry of Fuel and Power under Hugh Gaitskell. Robens moved to the new constituency of Blyth, later Blyth Valley, in 1950 following boundary changes. In 1951, Robens was briefly Minister of Labour and National Service but the Conservative Party won the general election later that year.
In opposition, Robens continued to rise in the party, being appointed shadow Foreign Secretary by Clement Attlee, and starting to be considered as a future candidate for party leader. Robens himself "yearned to become Prime Minister". However, Robens failed to impress during the Suez crisis of 1956 and party leader Gaitskell felt him too left wing. He was replaced as shadow foreign secretary by Aneurin Bevan and felt that his political ambitions had been frustrated. Thus, in 1960, when Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan offered him the chairmanship of the National Coal Board (NCB) he accepted enthusiastically. Gaitskell died two years later and Tweedale has expressed the view that, had he persisted in politics, Robens, rather than Harold Wilson, would likely have become Prime Minister.
National Coal Board
Robens took up his appointment at the NCB in 1961 and was created a life peer as Baron Robens of Woldingham, of Woldingham in the County of Surrey, on 28 June. Amongst those critical of this sudden elevation were his successor as MP for Blyth, Eddie Milne. Robens' leadership of the NCB was high-handed. He expected unflinching loyalty from colleagues and subordinates alike, and was confrontational with politicians. He enjoyed the trappings of power including a Daimler with registration "NCB 1", an executive aeroplane and an apartment in Eaton Square, London. His behaviour earned him the nickname "Old King Coal", a pun on Old King Cole. However, he threw himself into the job with vigour and enthusiasm, visiting pits, arguing with miners at the coalface and developing a deep knowledge of the industry. In 1963 he was invited to deliver the MacMillan Memorial Lecture to the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland. He chose the subject 'Coal - Its Place in the National Economy'.
As Chairman of the NCB, Robens oversaw substantial cuts in the mining industry, many of them reflecting market forces and government policies originated before he assumed the post. Although he lobbied to protect the industry, his reputation as a socialist necessarily suffered—when he took over as NCB chair there were 698 pits employing 583,000 miners, but by the time he left the post ten years later there were only 292 pits employing 283,000 miners. For a while, Robens had a constructive working relationship with miners' leader Will Paynter but he had a combative relationship with the Wilson Labour government. Industrial relations deteriorated and by the end of Robens' tenure in 1971, the stage was set for the discontent, confrontations and strikes of the 1970s.
Robens expressed concern at the poor health and safety record of the coal industry and championed campaigns to reduce accidents and to counter chronic occupational diseases, such as pneumoconiosis. Although the number of fatal and serious accidents fell by over 60% during his tenure, there was also a fall in the workforce of over 50%, from 583,000 to 283,000.
The largest single blow to his reputation came from his reaction to the catastrophic 1966 industrial accident at Aberfan. On the morning of 21 October a massive spoil heap from the nearby Merthyr Vale Colliery collapsed onto the village of Aberfan, burying 20 houses and the Pantglas Junior School in a 10-metre deep landslide of water-saturated slurry, killing 116 school children and 28 adults.
Despite the enormity of the disaster, Robens chose to go ahead with his installation as Chancellor of the University of Surrey before coming to Aberfan, and he did not arrive until the evening of the following day, a blunder that was compounded by the actions of NCB staff, who falsely informed the Minister of Power that Robens was at Aberfan. At first, Robens claimed that the disaster had been caused by "natural unknown springs" beneath the tip, but evidence emerged that the existence of these springs was common knowledge.
The report of the Davies Tribunal which inquired into the disaster was highly critical of the NCB and Robens. He controversially appeared in the final days of the inquiry and conceded that the NCB was at fault, an admission which would have rendered much of the inquiry unnecessary had it been made at the outset. After the report was published in August 1967 he wrote to the then Minister of Power offering his resignation, but the Minister and PM Harold Wilson rejected it, although several cabinet members argued strongly that Robens should have been removed.
There have been allegations that the resignation offer was "bogus" and Robens had been assured that it would not be accepted. According to Ronald Dearing, then a senior member of staff at the Ministry of Power, who briefed Marsh on the matter, the fact that Robens was "taking the coal industry through a period of painful contraction without big strikes" and the strong support for him within the coal industry and the union movement were crucial to the decision to retain him.
In the wake of the disaster Robens refused to allow the NCB to fund the removal of the remaining tips from Aberfan, despite the fact that the Davies Tribunal concluded that the NCB's liability was "incontestible and uncontested".
Despite this conclusion, Robens refused to pay the full cost. This put the Trustees of the Disaster Fund, which had been raised by public appeal, under "intolerable pressure". Robens then "raided" the Fund for £150,000 (£1.8 million at 2003 prices)to cover the cost of removing the tips – an action that was "unquestionably unlawful" under charity law – and the Charity Commission took no action to protect the Fund from Robens's dubious appropriation of funds.
There is no evidence that prosecution for corporate manslaughter was considered at the time. Robens was exonerated by the official history of the NCB but he remains condemned in other quarters.
In 1969, he was selected by Barbara Castle to chair a committee on workplace health and safety. This led to the 1972 Robens Report which controversially championed the idea of self-regulation by employers. The Report itself led to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the creation of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive.
Following the Conservative victory in the 1970 general election, Robens found the new administration's distaste for nationalisation at odds with his own rather paternalistic views on social engineering. He fell into conflict with Prime Minister Edward Heath and Minister of State for Industry Sir John Eden. Robens left the NCB in 1971 but always insisted that his tenure was a success.
Robens had become a director of the Bank of England in 1966 and a member of the board of directors of Times Newspapers in 1967. He was Chairman of Vickers from 1971 to 1979, opposing the Labour plans for nationalisation that led to the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977. He was Chairman of Johnson Matthey from 1971 to 1983, and a director of Trust House Forte and several other companies. His lifestyle was increasingly at odds with his socialist beginnings and by 1979, he had become aligned with the Conservative Party.
Other public appointments
- Chairman of the Foundation on Automation and Employment (1962);
- Chairman of the Engineering Industries Council (1976–80);
- Member of the royal commission on trade unions and employers' associations (1965–8);
- Member of the National Economic Development Council (1976–80);
- Council of Manchester Business School:
- Chairman (1970–1979);
- Chairman of the court of governors of the London School of Economics (1965);
- Chairman of the board of governors of Guy's Hospital (1965–74).
- Tweedale (2008)
- Robens (1972) p.4
- UK Resilience website - National Recovery Guidance - Case Studies: The Aberfan Disaster
- McLean (1997)
- "Aberfan aftermath, Sir Ron replies: 'I believe advice was disinterested and just' ", Times Higher Education Supplement, 7 February 1997
- O‘Donoghue, J. et al. (2004). "Consumer Price Inflation since 1750". Economic Trends 604: 38–46, March.
- Jacint Jordana & Dav id Levi-Faur: The Politics of Regulation: Examining Regulatory Institutions and Instruments in the Age of Governance (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2004) ISBN 1-84376-464-4, ISBN 978-1-84376-464-9, pp.54-58
- McLean & Johnes (2000) p.41
- Ashworth (1986)
- "Factory safety Bill should await committee's report". The Times. February 13, 1971. p. 19, col A.
- Cullen (1996)
- Ashworth, W. & Pegg. M. (1986). History of the British Coal Industry, Vol. 5: The Nationalised Industry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-828295-8.
- Cullen, W. (1996). "The development of safety legislation". Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society of Edinburgh Lecture. Royal Society of Edinburgh. Retrieved 2008-03-23.
- Evans, H. (1978). Vickers: Against the Odds, 1956–1977. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-23434-2.
- Gormley, J. (1982). Battered Cherub. London: H Hamilton. ISBN 0-241-10754-7.
- McLean, I (1997) "Heartless bully who added to agony of Aberfan: Thirty years on, documents reveal how Coal Board chief Lord Robens dodged the blame for the disaster". The Observer, January 5, p.12
- — & Johnes, M. (2000). Aberfan: Government and Disasters. Welsh Academic Press. ISBN 1-86057-033-X.
- Robens, A. (1970). Human Engineering. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-61837-7.
- — (1972). Ten Year Stint. London: Cassell. ISBN 0-304-93874-2.
- — (1977). Managing Great Britain Limited. Ashridge Management College. ISBN 0-903542-14-5.
- Simpson, R. C. (1973). "Safety and Health at Work: Report of the Robens Committee 1970-72". Modern Law Review 36 (2): 192–198.
- Tweedale, G. (2008) "Robens, Alfred, Baron Robens of Woldingham (1910–1999)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edn, accessed 26 March 2008 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Alfred Robens
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
|Member of Parliament for Wansbeck
|New constituency||Member of Parliament for Blyth
|Minister of Labour and National Service
|Chairman of the National Coal Board