HC Deb 18 November 1968 vol 773 cc893-6
Mr. Hazell (by Private Notice)

asked the Minister of Power whether he will make a statement concerning the blow-out on the North Sea gas rig off Norfolk, resulting in the loss of three lives.

The Minister of Power (Mr. Roy Mason)

About 9.40 a.m. last Friday, a blow-out, not an explosion, of gas occurred from a well being drilled for production on the Phillips platform in the Hewett gas field. The 40 men on the platform were evacuated without casualty. Unfortunately, two members of the crew of the stand-by vessel, "Hector Gannet", lost their lives and one is missing.

I should like to extend my sympathy to the families and relatives of the men who have been lost. I should also like to try to pay tribute to all those individuals who contributed under very difficult conditions to the success of the rescue operation.

Mr. Adair, a well-known expert in these matters, has been called in by Phillips and is in charge of measures to stop the gas flow, and make the well safe. Provided that all goes well the situation should be fully under control within two to three days. In fact, the House will wish to know that the flow of gas to the surface was stopped at 2.05 p.m. this afternoon, though measures to bring it fully under control continue.

Mr. Hazell

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and associate myself with his expression of sympathy to the relatives of those who lost their lives?

May I also express deep appreciation and thanks to the crews of the helicopter service, the Lowestoft trawler the "Boston Hornet", and the Cromer lifeboat, which went out under terrible weather conditions and, as a result of whose efforts 40 men were saved from the rig?

May I ask my right hon. Friend three short questions? Can he tell the House what caused the blow-out; is he satisfied with the safety measures applicable to these rigs; and, finally, will he undertake to review all safety regulations concerning them?

Mr. Mason

The accident happened when men were withdrawing the last section of the drill pipe. I do not know whether it was a human or mechanical error, but Phillips is obliged to give us a report. The safety precautions are adequate. A voluminous document, a code of safe practice, is issued as mandatory with every licence we issue to the explorers and producers of North Sea gas.

Dame Irene Ward

Since the rescue ship which turned turtle was manned entirely by brave men from my constituency, in North Shields, may I also associate myself with the expressions of deep regret and sorrow we all feel for the relatives of the men who were lost?

May I, also, ask about safety regulations? I do not find the Minister's answer entirely satisfactory. After an occurrence of this kind, and in view of some of the statements made in the Press by presumably reputable people, would it not be better to hold an independent inquiry to find out whether there is any other way of making these rigs safer? That would, at any rate, be satisfactory to those engaged in operating them.

Mr. Mason

The hon. Lady is under a misapprehension. The rig is safe and it has not caused an accident or fatality among those employed on it. This was an accident to the supply vessel. No doubt the hon. Lady will be pleased to learn that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has ordered a preliminary inquiry, under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, into the loss of the "Hector Gannet".

Dame Irene Ward

Of course, I—

Mr. Speaker


Dame Irene Ward

The right hon. Gentleman should not say that sort of thing.

Mr. Hector Hughes

As events have shown that this rig was neither seaworthy nor weatherproof, would my right hon. Friend state what precautions are taken in granting licences for such rigs to ensure that they are seaworthy and weatherproof, and what provision he makes for the crews and for the relatives of those who are injured or killed when such a tragedy occurs?

Mr. Mason

My hon. and learned Friend is under the same misapprehension as the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward). There has been no accident to the rig as such, and I am satisfied that the safety standards are adequate.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the Minister aware that there is general public anxiety about the number of accidents which have taken place since rigs began to operate in the North Sea? Would he give further consideration to the question of a general safety review? Does he recall that last Session we passed an Order which provided that vessels would not approach closer to certain rigs than five kilometres? Should not this rule have been applied and the rescue conducted by helicopters, thereby saving lives?

Mr. Mason

This was a rescue operation and, therefore, the supply vessel was obliged to go as near as possible to save life. I must refute what has been said about the safety of rigs. I am satisfied that the safety standards are quite adequate, but, as a result of the "Sea Gem" inquiry, I am prepared to consider further legislation which would give statutory backing to the code of practice.

Mr. Leadbitter

My right hon. Friend will agree that when there is an accident at sea this House and the whole country respond with a deep sense of regret and sorrow. I have raised a number of questions—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must put a question.

Mr. Leadbitter

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have raised a number of questions on rig safety in the past? Whereas I agree that the safety standards are very high, we are dealing with unique conditions. Would he consider whether, during the very heavy weather which we are bound to have over the next few months, standby ships of the Royal Navy could play a part, because some of our lifeboats are expected to do far too much in these conditions?

Mr. Mason

One of the main recommendations of the inquiry into the "Sea Gem" accident was to have a standby vessel operating around every rig 24 hours a day. This is precisely what the vessel in this case was doing. It is there for safety purposes. It was in the act of rescue that the accident took place to the supply vessel and not to the rig.

Mr. Emery

I declare an interest in this matter. Would the Minister confirm that this was a fixed platform and not a movable rig, as was the case in other accidents? Secondly, would he ensure that his praise is handed to the pilots, both civil and military, who acted in ensuring that the men were taken away from the fixed platform? Lastly, would he confirm that all those concerned are willing to give every co-operation in ensuring that an inquiry takes place into all safety aspects?

Mr. Mason

I am alive to the particular interests of the hon. Gentleman, but the Philips Company has been most co-operative. I agree with him that the helicopter operation was a first-class success. The helicopter pilots operated irrespective of whatever danger there might have been and picked up quite safely everyone who remained on the rig. The whole operation took only an hour.

Mr. Tinn

Would my right hon. Friend say a little more about what machinery there is for the enforcement of safety regulations on rigs, bearing in mind that insurance companies are setting a very high premium of 10 per cent. for insuring risks in the North Sea?

Mr. Mason

There is quite a detailed document, the code of safety practice, which is mandatory every time that I issue a licence. If this code is not complied with, I have the right to withdraw the licence.