HC Deb 16 January 1974 vol 867 cc669-96

10.5 p.m.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

I welcome the opportunity to raise in the debate on the Consolidated Fund the topic of the safety of North Sea oil installations. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will concede that I am right in arguing that, no matter how we adjust the pace, the exploration and exploitation of Contintal Shelf oil should not be prejudicial to the well-being of the men who man the drilling rigs, production platforms, the supply and support vessels and those who are engaged in the inspection of the devices in operation by means of diving techniques.

Some outsiders may argue that this debate is sparked off by recent happenings which have involved two semi-submersible drilling rigs, the Transocean 3 and the Transworld 61. To some extent that is true, but it is not the whole truth. During the passage of the Mineral Workings (Offshore Installation) Act 1971 hon. Members pointed out the very different conditions which were involved in North Sea operations and said that these conditions became the more onerous when drilling and production became necessary in deeper waters.

To give an example of the effect of deeper waters on one element, wave height, in 300 feet of water more waves of over 30 feet will occur than those of over 20 feet closer to the shore. Therefore, in terms of design and construction techniques, a unit which can operate at one depth might be quite unsuitable when required for much deeper waters.

We are concerned about who is to judge. Is it to be the operator, the designer, the constructor or the Government, or are they all involved and how, therefore, do we get them all involved? To the best of my knowledge, no regulations exist on the evaluation of designs. It is left entirely to the operators and designers in conjunction with survey organisations such as Lloyds.

I was told in February 1973 that regulations for the construction of offshore installations covered a completely new field of industrial activity for the United Kingdom and consultations on the framing of such regulations had taken much more time than was originally estimated. I understand that draft regulations were circulated in December 1972 on a confidential basis, but I do not think that that confidence has been kept. In a reputable institutional magazine we are told: A draft was circulated confidentially in December last year."— That is, December 1972— It contains the DTI's up-to-date proposals for control over design and construction of installations used in United Kingdom offshore areas. It is really only one regulation—that every offshore installation shall have a certificate of fitness. The rest merely outlines how to get one: to submit the design to an independent certifying authority: mat the certifying authority's surveyor shall be satisfied as to correct construction, materials and workmanship: and that the supervising inspector is satisfied with its installation and platform equipment. The major ship classification authorities such as Lloyd's Register, Det Norske Veritas of Norway and Bureau Veritas of Paris are likely to be authorised for certification work by the DTI. Negotiations have been continuing quietly in recent months although no official appointments can be made until this section of the Act is laid before Parliament. This is a serious state of affairs. I am unaware of the precautions that are taken at present in the construction and design of offshore installations. It strikes me as inadequate that these devices are being constructed without one body or several bodies having statutory approval under regulation of this Parliament.

I turn to the regulations currently in force. The Secretary of State has power to secure the registration of offshore installations being used on the United Kingdom Continental Shelf. Were the Transocean 3 and the Transworld 61 so registered, and were details given of the nature and function, or proposed function, of these installations? These are fair questions despite the fact that the matter may be somewhat sub judice in view of the inquiry which the Department of Trade and Industry has suggested might take place. In simple terms, was the DTI informed that this specific class of semi-submersible, one of which was only recently completed at Hamburg, was to be used in operations on the United Kingdom Continental Shelf?

If the answer to both questions is "Yes", what expertise is available to the Minister to evaluate the suitability of such devices for different locations in the North Sea? The Minister will no doubt have read the letter by Mr. Bryan Hildrew in the Financial Times yesterday. Mr. Hildrew, who is Technical Director of Lloyd's Register of Shipping, endeavours to allay some of the fears expressed about the strength of the platforms at present being built at Nigg Bay and Graythorpe. He says: While carrying out this work for classification we"— that is Lloyd's Register— have maintained continuous liaison with the DTI Petroleum Division to ensure that their latest thinking has been incorporated into the structure. I accept that some of these functions, if not all of them—and we await clarification from the Minister who has been translated to the new Department of Energy—are within the scope of that Department. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how his new Department arrives at the latest thinking in the art of constructing such devices. What research and development facilities are available so that his Department can express a view on the most up-to-date aspects of the art? What is the value of the contracts for research and development work connected with the North Sea placed by, for instance, the Ship and Marine Technology Requirements Board? How much money have we spent as a nation to develop research and development with particular reference to the North Sea?

If I may put a tangential but important point, I have previously argued the need to produce a design of concrete platform which could be built in Central Scotland, with the Government assisting such a project. On closer examination I can see difficulties in doing this unless there could be a clear understanding between Government, designer, contractor and operator. The Government now feel that it is necessary to think of intervening to ensure that sites are available for contractors. Perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity to say a little more about how they intend to do this to allay some of the fears that have been expressed in Scotland that some rights, in terms of objections to compulsory purchase orders and the holding of public inquiries, might be undermined unless the Government make the position clear.

Given all this intervention, the Government have not thought it appropriate to intervene in the arena of design and research and development. It is true that the operators and licensees will have placed upon them, individually and collectively, an obligation continuously to monitor the competence of these structures in operation. There does not appear to me to be any desire on the part of the Government to sponsor research which would seek to anticipate such behaviour. It is essential that we try to get Government-sponsored research and development, in association with the industry, to anticipate the conditions under which these structures are likely to operate.

The placing of production platforms of the magnitude of those likely to be placed in the Brent and the Forties fields has been likened to putting the Concorde in flight without a flight test programme. In the case of the Concorde, no stretch of the imagination can be used to suggest that the costs of research and development have fallen on the private sector, yet in the case of drilling rigs and production platforms the market approach is to prevail with little or no Government finance to be involved. Is this fair when we consider the massive potential revenues which will accrue to the Government from royalties and the taxation forthcoming from the potential flows of North Sea oil?

It may be that the structure of United Kingdom industry is a contributing factor to the reluctance of the Government. If it is, steps should be taken to initiate the research and development and to ensure that United Kingdom designers use the expertise with United Kingdom contractors and United Kingdom operators, if necessary by altering the industrial structure, which seems to be inappropriate to the needs of this new industry.

Time and the number of hon. Members who may wish to intervene do not permit me to deal adequately with the construction problems relating to North Sea gas. But I wonder whether the Minister will give the House some assurances about the safety standards used for the Frigg gas field. I understand that the Department of Trade and Industry has demanded that the Frigg flame should have the capacity to dispose of the entire capacity of the pipeline in the case of pipeline problems. If a capacity of 80 million cubic metres a day is envisaged, what additional devices are necessary for the safety of personnel and shipping?

Pipeline safety in construction is a further problem. What inspection agency do the Government consider adequate to undertake such work? Some of my hon. Friends have seen the vessels which Vickers Oceanics uses for pipeline inspection and repairs, and we expect an expansion of their operations. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has paid special attention to diving problems and the welfare of divers, and he knows the need for the Government to devise suitable regulations for such vessels as those used by Vickers. Do the Government intend to initiate pipeline surveys on their own behalf, or will they have access to the operators' own surveys? What do they intend in this connection?

This point and the eventual provision of sub-sea production techniques will tax diving skills, and, again, it requires Government action in terms of research and development to perfect these techniques.

When a life is lost or a huge and costly piece of capital expenditure is destroyed, public attention is riveted on the issue of North Sea oil and the dangers involved in exploration and exploitation. The happenings surrounding Transocean 3 will be reported in due course, and it is hoped that lessons will be learned. But it is the accumulation of knowledge and its application which should prevent further loss of life and materials.

Transocean 3 is not the first drilling rig to fall to the hazards of the North Sea. We all hope that it will be the last. But with 22 companies yet to complete their drilling programmes for the third and fourth round of licences, and with perhaps in the region of 100 production facilities eventually to be placed in the North Sea, this hope will become reality only if we marshall our resources of science and technology to the task.

The Government have likened the bringing ashore of North Sea oil to a war-time operation. In time of war men and materials become more expendable than in peace time. However, needless loss of life due to acceleration of the pace of development in the North Sea or the absence of the necessary regulations or the employment of slipshod operators caring more for profit than for safety will not be tolerated. We are well behind other countries in terms of operations and safety regulations, especially the United States. It is high time that we brought our standards up to date and, if possible, advanced upon those of other nations.

Those who a week or so ago from the warmth of their own firesides watched the "Midweek" film which partially and, to some extent, inadequately dealt with the conditions under which the men who will win the oil work obtained some indication of the problems and hazards with which they have to contend.

We have yet to get the oil ashore. Some parties and their spokesmen take the view that the oil is already gushing forth. This is not so. Considerable engineering difficulties have yet to be overcome. If we are to complete this task, haste should not involve the loss of life or limb.

I beg to request the Minister to reply adequately in terms of the time-honoured practice of this House.

10.21 p.m.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I welcome the opportunity of discussing the safety of offshore installations in the North Sea. I hope to demonstrate the need for a public inquiry into the loss of Transocean 3 and the subsequent difficulties of Transworld 61.

I do not think that anyone who knows the North Sea is in any doubt about the treacherous climatic conditions which apply. In the North-East and on the North coast of Scotland I doubt whether any single village or fishing community has been spared tragedy, or repeated tragedy, over the decades and centuries in which fishermen have sought to wrest a living from North Sea waters. The North Sea exacts a grim toll of those who seek the riches which lie beneath its turbulent waters. Of those who now seek the modern riches of North Sea gas and oil it has already taken human toll.

On Monday 27th December 1965 the self-elevating barge Sea Gem collapsed, capsized and sank approximately 43 miles east of the Humber. Of the crew of 32 men, 19 survived and 13 lost their lives. An inquiry was held, first, by the Department concerned and, secondly, a tribunal was appointed in February 1967 to establish the circumstances of the accident. The hearing occupied 29 days, and its report was published on 26th July 1967. The tribunal decided that because of the difficulties it was not possible to generalise on construction methods. In paragraph 10.1 of the report it stated: There is now a large number of oil drilling rigs of various nationalities, ownerships and types on location in the North Sea so that generalisations could well be both inapt and dangerous. It is unlikely that another drilling rig exactly like the Sea Gem will ever be constructed so that recommendations based on what the Tribunal might think would have made the Sea Gem a safer structure are little to the purpose. In terms of North Sea drilling the Sea Gem represented a pioneering, not to say an experimental project. The tribunal, therefore, confined its recommendations to the management of offshore structures, and in paragraph 10.2 stated: In some other countries, notably in the United States of America, there are statutory provisions for regulating the management of Artificial Islands and Fixed Structures on the Outer Continental Shelf. The Tribunal is of the opinion that a code of similar authority supported by credible sanctions ought to be made applicable to British structures of like kind. Since 1965 there have been other losses in the North Sea, though happily there has not been any further loss of life. But it is worth bearing in mind that by 1965 throughout the world 24 of the 200 installations at that time working had been lost in 14 years. Therefore, we know that there is a long history of failures of structures operating in the sea.

Conditions in the North Sea off Scotland are much worse even than those off the Humber. Storm waves can reach 100 ft., wind conditions can rise to 100 miles an hour and more, sea temperatures can drop to 4°C, and air temperatures can drop to below freezing point. Work is now being carried out in waters 400 ft. deep, but it could be done at a depth of 600 ft. deep. These conditions have never before been experienced anywhere in the world, and stringent safety conditions and measures are needed to make sure that design and construction are safe.

The number of rigs is increasing every year. By the end of last year 14 rigs were operating in the North Sea off Scotland, and it has been estimated that that figure will rise to 25 or 30 towards the middle of this year. It was estimated in September that 38 out of 91 mobile rigs under construction throughout the world were for operation in the North Sea, and it is against that background that we must evaluate the loss of Trans-ocean 3 and the evacuation of Transworld 61.

Transocean 3 capsized 100 miles south of Shetland at the Beryl field. We do not know exactly what happened, and events will have to tell us what transpired, but it is thought that Transocean 3 sprang a leak in one of its support legs. It developed a list, the crew were transferred to Transworld 61 and then flown off by helicopter.

Transworld 61 is now under tow in the North Sea, and it is believed to have shown signs of collapse. Its operators maintain that it is not far from its eventual destination in Norway, but I was told yesterday by informed sources in Aberdeen that it has been blown far north of Stavanger.

Transocean 3 is also still in the North Sea. One of its broken-off legs is drifting and is a hazard to other rigs operating in the area and also to general shipping. This rig cost £10 million, and was completed in Hamburg as late as the end of 1973. I am told that it was certificated for use in the North Sea by the American Bureau of Shipping and by the German Lloyd Inspectorate, but there is a Press report, which bears serious examination, that this rig was designed for much calmer waters, possibly the Mediterranean, and was not really designed for the North Sea. I agree that that has been vigorously denied by the operators, but there is a quotation in the Daily Express on Tuesday 8th January, apparently from a spokesman of the builders, H.W.D. Hamburg.

He said: We built the rig according to plans supplied by our customer… and they were for rigs being used in Pacific waters or in the quiet Mediterranean. Possibly they could not stand up to the rough waters of the North Sea. That was denied by the operators, but the quote goes on to say: But at the same time, Transocean's London boss, Mr. Leo le Bron, was talking to officials of the shipbuilders in Germany to probe the source of the statements. I have not seen what has transpired since then, but that is a good enough reason for a strong inquiry.

We know that the Department is conducting its own inquiry—I am not sure whether it is now the Department of Energy or still the Department of Trade and Industry—but much more is required because, curiously enough, the Department of Trade and Industry has given the impression that it has no statutory powers to hold an inquiry. This may be official caution in dealing with newspapers—I do not know—but I think that we should be given the answer to that tonight.

Whether or not there are statutory powers to hold a public inquiry—and I hope that we can be given an assurance tonight that such powers exist—there is a precedent for a non-statutory inquiry, because the tribunal investigating the loss of the "Sea Gem" had no statutory powers. Indeed, there is an interesting quote from the tribunal's report. It says:

The Tribunal was without statutory authority, had no power to compel the attendance of witnesses, nor was it empowered to administer oaths. So generous, however, was the contribution of all concerned that there can hardly ever have been an investigation better served by those who offered evidence. The co-operation of those operating Transocean 3 and Transworld 61 would be forthcoming, but if there is any doubt about that the Minister should have no hesitation in using his powers under the Continental Shelf Act and withdrawing the exploration licences. That is a sanction which we hope would never need to be used, but it is at present the only sanction.

I accept that this inquiry would deal only with the immediate situation of those two rigs. What is urgently needed is regulations relating to registration of rigs. On the Second Reading of the Mineral Workings (Offshore Installations) Act 1971, Earl Ferrers, for the Government, said: My Lords, I think that we are the first country in the world to bring forward comprehensive safety legislation on this particular subject. Other countries are equally interested in the safety of these workpeople, and our North Sea neighbours will no doubt be watching with interest the progress of this draft legislation. We are sure that all countries will welcome moves to provide for the safety of these activities. Indeed, it may well be that the initiative we are taking will spur others to do the same. This is one of the very few areas of employment where safety is not yet controlled by Statute."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 18th February 1971 ; Vol. 315, c. 743.] Those were very optimistic words about the legislation. A clear impression was given that consultations with the oil licensees had shown that offshore operators were receptive to the Government's proposals and that there would be no delay in working out these proposals.

During the Committee stage of that Act the then Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), was even more forthcoming. On being pressed by hon. Members as to when regulations would come forward, he said: We hope to be as speedy as possible in getting regulations drafted and made into an order which can be laid before the House, but the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there is a difference between the Clause 2 and Clause 3 regulations. It may not be possible to bring them into effect at the same time. Indeed, there may be different classes of orders within those Clauses. The intention is to get the first regulations complete and published within six months, but it may take a little longer to get all the regulations completed."—[OFFICIAL RLPORT, Standing Committee G, 17th June 1971 ; c. 5.] We have all heard the saying—to which I shall not attribute authorship—that a week is a long time in politics. But that six months has stretched into two and a half years. As far as I am aware, not one set of regulations has reached the House. The regulations on registration are not the only regulations.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Peter Emery)

The hon. Gentleman would not want to mislead the House. Therefore, perhaps it would be better if I intervened now. Four sets of regulations have not only reached the House but been approved by the House.

Mr. Hughes

I am glad to hear that. People whom I have consulted in the past few days are certainly not aware of registrations.

The fact remains that registration regulations are not the only regulations or necessarily the most important. The Act gave the Government very wide powers. It was full of delegated legislation. Section 3, for example, gave the Government powers over construction and survey. Like most hon. Members, I appreciate that in the North Sea we are working on the frontiers of technology. New designs are proliferating, as each new company decides to move forward. Construction in concrete is proposed, as are all kinds of things. But we must always remember that so far no production platform has been delivered. Therefore, we are waiting for others to come forward We are dealing with constructions composed of about 25,000 tons of steel, and the stress calculations must be immensely complicated. As an engineering designer of very modest proportions, I realise why the Act was made up of delegated legislation.

Two and a half years is far too long a time to wait for all the regulations to come forward, especially as we have been told from the beginning that the industry was co-operative, receptive and anxious to help. There may be some reason for thinking that something has gone awry in the Department of Trade and Industry because of this delay.

What is essential to the safety of the installations is the safety of the personnel employed on the rigs. This is a matter of much concern when we are awaiting regulations. I hope that this matter was meant to be in the letter which the Minister sent to me on 7th May 1973 about regulations and working conditions. I certainly have not seen it. I should be delighted to hear whether it was. There is a great need for a thorough investigation into working conditions. There have been many allegations about them. For example, it is said that men are working 84 and even 100 hours a week and that on some rigs when one shift goes on to work the shift coming off simply goes into the same beds using the same bed linen. I appreciate that these complaints are hard to substantiate. Many of those who operate on the rigs will say in private what goes on but as soon as they are asked for chapter and verse—the name of the rig and the name of the employer—they turn coy because they fear dismissal.

That is one reason why we need a full investigation. There is no power of trade unions to ensure that proper conditions obtain. Men cannot be organised on the North Sea as they can be on shore. Complaints have also been lodged with Lord Polwarth. Supply vessels which are not registered to carry crews for the rigs are ferrying men to and from the rigs without proper safety equipment. There have been investigations into this by Lord Polwarth but so far there has been no prosecution of the vessel owners concerned.

The whole story of exploration for oil in the North Sea has been marred by a lack of Government foresight in planning. I do not believe we can allow this situation to continue into the realm of safety. The sums involved are immense, and one would imagine that companies spending £20 million, £40 million or even £50 million on a platform would make sure that it was safe. Nevertheless, we know that Transocean 3, which cost £10 million, was not safe. The whole history of merchant shipping legislation has been one of Governments battling against intransigent owners who were not prepared to look after the safety of their men and were prepared to put profits above men's lives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) will be able to tell us that even today there are unscrupulous shipowners. I am not suggesting that there is an exact parallel in the North Sea. What I do say is this: the prize of economic progress is great for Scotland. The prize for the United Kingdom in self-reliance of energy is immense. We cannot allow that prize to be paid for in men's lives through either lack of legislation or lack of resolve by the Government to implement the legislation already on the statute book.

10.37 p.m.

Mrs Margo MacDonald (Glasgow, Govan)

The debate is about safety regulations, or the lack of them, in the oil industry in the Scottish part of the North Sea. Hon. Members have already referred to the speed and haste of the Government in pushing ahead with the oil exploration and, we hope, exploitation.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Robert Hughes) referred to the long history of unscrupulous behaviour on the part of shipowners, and we hope that it will not carry on into the oil industry. But neither the hon. Member nor his hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Douglas) said why the Government were in such a haste to exploit the oil. I would suggest the lack of safety regulations is symptomatic of the attitude of panic by the Government towards the oil industry generally. Since I came to this House all I have heard about has been the serious economic situation. All I have heard is that the way out is for the Government to get their hands on the oil as quickly as possible, to take the oil and the revenues. That is why the Government are prepared to put exploitation of the oil before safety. The Department of Trade and Industry and now the Department of Energy appear to be permitting proper considerations of safety for those directly and indirectly involved to be bypassed in the haste to get hold of the oil and the revenues.

How else can the Minister explain away the fact that he appears to have shelved the powers given to him by the Mineral Workings (Offshore Installations) Act 1971? We keep hearing of the Act, which appears to be very broad, yet everyone complains that there are not enough regulations covering all the parts of the industry.

The Act allows the Government to introduce very wide powers. Why has not the Minister laid down regulations concerning the structure, strength and suitability for the climatic conditions in the North Sea of the rigs? Will he give us an assurance that he will soon take measures to enable his Department to exercise control over the standards and design of such rigs so that we do not have a repeat of the performance of Transocean 3?

I believe that the German shipbuilders who admitted that it was not constructed for use in waters such as the North Sea spoke out of turn, before the operators were able to put their point of view on record, and that that is the truth of the matter, that the rig was not constructed for the North Sea. Will the Minister take those measures as a matter of urgency, as other rigs presently in use in the North Sea are of the same design as Transocean 3?

There are all sorts of spin-off hazards. One of the legs of Transocean 3 is still drifting around in the North Sea, constituting a danger to shipping, oil rigs and the rig safety vessels standing off the oil rigs. The Government must bring pressure to bear on the owners of the rig to remove the danger.

We all know that the Government are afraid to deal more firmly with the oil companies, because they have the mistaken idea that the companies may pull out of the North Sea. But there is nowhere else the companies can go. They must explore and exploit the North Sea. The Government have the whip hand, and could ask the oil companies to clear up the litter they leave behind.

If the rig leg collided with one of the rig safety vessels, lives could well be lost, because in the opinion of the skippers commanding those vessels they are merely worn-out trawlers which were not built for the job they are doing or the conditions in which they are doing it. Will the Minister also bring into force regulations to ensure that suitable and safe vessels are used for this work?

In conclusion, I strongly urge the Minister to impress on his right hon. and hon. Friends the necessity to make the rate of oil exploitation match the community's ability both to take advantage of it and to guard against the hazards created by it.

The hon. Member for East Stirlingshire suggested that some political parties had assumed that the oil was already gushing and were expecting a quick return from it. I do not know of any such stupid political parties. The longer the oil remains under the sea, the more valuable it becomes. We have plenty of time to make sure that we are geared up technologically, socially and physically to take advantage of the industry and make it work for us, instead of asking the people who live around the area to work for the industry.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

According to the hon. Lady's view, is the oil to be extracted more quickly or more slowly?

Mrs. MacDonald

I have already said at what rate I think the oil should be exploited. It should match our ability to take advantage of the opportunities created by it and to counter the hazards created by it. I believe that the Government have recently said that they wish almost to double their intended rate of exploitation. That is far too much. My party has said that we expect revenues of £800 million a year from North Sea oil by 1980, which I think on present figures would allow us to take 60 million to 80 million tons.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

I am venturing into hostile waters when I discuss Scottish matters, but I want to say something about the problem because it is of great concern to those employed in the industry and to those of us associated with maritime affairs and interested in the safety of workers.

The area of employment that we are now debating is one where the waters are extremely hostile and create very hazardous conditions. The safety of the oil rigs is essential. It is essential for the House to understand these matters because the solution, or at least the first step towards establishing safety on the rigs, is in the hands of the House. It is by statutory regulations in maritime matters that the real standards are set. Therefore, we have a great responsibility.

The importance of oil does not have to be emphasised. The search for oil, and particularly in the North Sea, will undoubtedly increase. It is of concern that safety may be overlooked or that corners may be cut in the search. It is up to hon. Members to ensure that we legislate correctly and fairly so that adequate safety standards are laid down.

There are now 17 rigs within United Kingdom waters under the Continental Shelf Act 1964. It is estimated that there will be approximately 45 by 1975. Those figures give an indication of the sort of increase in exploration which we shall see. The rigs vary in size, some having crews of up to 100 men. I have had the opportunity to visit a number of rigs, particularly when I was in Committee on the Mineral Workings (Offshore Installations) Bill, which is now an Act, and the Act to which we are now referring, which is basically an enabling Act which gives power to the Department to introduce regulations in a number of spheres of activity.

That legislation provided us with an opportunity to visit some of the rigs, including Sea Quest, which is sometimes advertised as the hotel in the North Sea. I visited it by helicopter and I stayed overnight. Some of my constituents and some close friends were working on it as divers and other workers. The rigs look massive in the shipyards but they seem small when they are placed in the North Sea. When people see them as photographs in the newspapers or in film on television they may appear to be massive constructions. It may seem that there is no need to worry about safety. However, when it is remembered that Transocean 3 was completely destroyed in about four hours, that is an indication of the elements with which we are playing and the importance which must be given to the design of the structures.

I have seen the figures which appeared in a recent study by a Cambridge research fellow, and it appears that since 1955 42 rigs have suffered some form of serious incident and that 10 per cent. of those rigs were write-offs. That means that on average we are losing rigs as complete write-offs, apart from other serious incidents, at the rate of approximately two and a third a year. Naturally that figure will increase as the number of oil rigs used in the exploration increases.

In United Kingdom waters we have had the tragic example of the Sea Gem which collapsed off Hull. On that occasion 13 men died. The only welcome factor to emerge from that incident was that it initiated action which eventually led to legislation and regulations. The Sea Gem collapsed in 1965 along with the rig Conoco. Both rigs collapsed off Hull. In 1968 there was the Ocean Prince incident. In 1969 the Constellation collapsed. They were all in trouble from towing operations off Flamborough Head. Even though the rigs were not in waters off Scotland, the weather was sufficient to upset that kind of construction.

Those incidents have occurred in United Kingdom waters. They show the real seriousness of what is beginning to happen. They give rise to doubts about the safety of design and construction of some rigs. In December 1972 and January 1973 and the latter part of last November, we have witnessed five incidents in Scottish waters. Three of them involved vessels each with eight anchor lines. They were uprooted by the strength of the elements and the rigs were thrown to the mercy of the elements. The Transworld 61 and the Transocean 3 both had their crews evacuated, one sinking and the other disabled. Transocean 3 was only a few months old, and it was destroyed in a few hours.

Clearly, these incidents must raise important points of design problems. The Minister will be aware that when these incidents occurred I wrote to the Department and asked him to conduct an immediate inquiry into the design properties of this type of rig—and I was picking out particular types. All forms of rig construction face particular problems in this sphere, but this type of semi-submersible floating rig creates extra problems in these circumstances. Is the Department looking seriously at whether it gives permission for them to continue drilling operations in these weathers?

It is true that there are types of drilling ships—a halfway house—and these, in the main, are not insured by insurance companies to operate in the North Sea weathers, primarily because they are not considered safe enough to do so. My information is that Transworld 61 was at one stage refused insurance coverage to operate in the North Sea weathers, and I wonder whether the Minister would like to confirm this.

It was not designed in any way for North Sea weather, but, like most design in this sphere, it was largely determined by areas which do not have the kind of inclement weather we have in the North Sea with all the different types of challenge there are there.

This was not the first incident with this type of rig. There have been others which included evacuation of crews from this rig. There are other good grounds for being concerned about this type of design, which has caused concern to those in the industry for some time.

It is always put forward as an argument that the organisations which cover the rigs are the classification societies, and that they in their researches look into these matters and that, by making classification an essential requirement for rigs, the standards the societies lay down are of sufficient standard. I do not doubt that considerable research is done and that advantage is taken of that and that it is incorporated into the design.

We have to bear in mind that this is a new area and the classification societies are largely competitive among themselves, a factor which the Government are about to change with their classification proposals in the Merchant Shipping Bill which will weaken the Government's position in having essential information from different societies which they need to know about different design to compile legislation. If one concentrates all one's eggs in one basket, the position will be difficult. The Minister looks puzzled at that but I think he understands, and I will not advert on the matter until the debates on the Merchant Shipping Bill.

The main classification for our rigs has been done by the American Bureau of Shipping, and many of the rigs are covered by its standards, which, quite frankly, do not always reflect North Sea conditions, which has perhaps been the problem also for some other classification societies.

This particular type of rig—the semi-submersible—reflects what is happening in the trend of the search for oil. Sea Gem, Conoco, and Ocean Prince were basically of the kind of jack-up design which were largely for waters of less than 200 feet to 300 feet. Now we are going into considerably deeper waters, so they can no longer be constructed as drilling rigs fastened to the sea bed. Therefore, one will have to design some other kind of construction. I have tried to suggest in my letter to the Minister calling for an inquiry that there is a danger to all types of rig, but clearly, if a rig is 100 feet out of the water it is less susceptible to waves of 100 feet or 50 feet and at 50 mph, which are described as reasonable conditions, but which were those under which the Transocean 3 collapsed and the Transworld 61 ran into difficulties. Those are considered normal conditions—100 mph winds and 100 feet high waves—in the North Sea. A high construction, several hundred feet high, is much less likely to be battered by such winds than a vessel of low construction floating on the water.

Considering all that, and such questions as metal fatigue, there is serious doubt, as the evidence shows, whether we should allow such constructions as are now operating to continue to operate in such conditions, which occurs especially in winter. A continual attempt is being made to "open the window" on the North Sea, and to operate for long periods of time, and this is a highly expensive time for this industry, but we must look seriously to see whether constructions of these designs should be allowed to continue in the North Sea. This is an essential priority job the Government must undertake.

As the inquiry into the Sea Gem pointed out, some investigations were required to be done. I do not think the Government have done any at all since then. I am not sure they have commissioned any. Perhaps the Minister would give us information about that. The point has been well made tonight that this is a priority.

I hope the Minister will bring before the House any regulations he has. At least then we could begin to get an understanding of what the Government's position is. Drafts of regulations have been circulating for some time now. If they were brought before the House we could express an opinion on them. It is most important to have some form of regulations to govern this business, where presently none exists, and only the classification societies are exercising any power.

While it is important to have legislation, it is equally important to have personnel trained and skilled in safety measures and operations. There are several points I want to make about that.

First, though, I should like to congratulate the Government on bringing in the four sets of regulations they have, although they have been slow about bringing any more since, and that is a criticism which must be answered by the Minister tonight.

I have taken a particular interest in diving operations, and friends of mine are engaged in that work, in terrible conditons, and work for which no regulations exist whatsoever. There has even been a difference of opinion about whether there should be regulations for safety. I got myself involved in that battle. I congratulate the Minister on having grasped that nettle in the one field of which I am reasonably well conversant ; I congratulate him on getting hold of the essential priority of safety. One looks forward to having regulations about that shortly.

As the Minister knows, a diver died in the North Sea just recently. He was a diver from one of the rigs. His body was missing. I believe that it has been found off the coast of Holland. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that, and I hope he will give us an indication of what led to the death of the diver. In talking of regulations, I would not like to do so without saying that the Government are to be congratulated on grasping hold of that one nettle anyway.

If they approach the making of other regulations in the same manner as they approached that matter, and grasp the essential point, and line themselves upon the side of safety, as they did over diving and diving bells, after a diver had been 14 hours in the water before being pulled out, they will go a long way towards satisfying my friends about the quality of the safety regulations and about the complaints we have been making.

Mr. Dalyell

Is my hon. Friend aware that Professor Alex Mair of Dundee University is deeply unhappy about the regulations relating to depths below 400 feet?

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend must be talking about the proposed regulations. I do not want to drag the debate into a discussion on diving, but perhaps we can talk about it later. Instead of a man being sent down in a canvas suit and a helmet, the regulations will now provide for him to go down in a bell with another diver, and to be brought to the surface and transferred. I have a practice certificate myself for diving, which I obtained in a canvas suit and a helmet. Perhaps we shall be given an opportunity at some time to discuss the regulations.

There are pressures for legislation about submarines. Another Minister said that he did not see the need for legislation, but he has now accepted it. The report on the "Pisces" incident will give us more information about safety needs in this area and is eagerly awaited.

We are awaiting the Government recommendations about the training of divers. The information that I was given in May 1972 was that they would be coming forward shortly. There seems to have been some dragging of feet ; perhaps we can be told about that.

Radio officers are not compulsory on these rigs. They are the essential link in the chain of safety, yet no regulations are laid down about their quality. Perhaps the regulations could require these officers to be of Post Office standard and to have some experience in telegraphy and other essential requirements. Perhaps they could also provide for the presence of trained medical staff to the standard of State-registered nurse.

The rigs have Drucker capsules instead of lifeboats. I hope that there will be safety regulations about and exercises in their operation, as there are on merchant ships, so that people can familiarise themslves with essential procedures. Some rigs carry out these procedures, but not all of them.

One vessel apparently had its helicopter pad ripped off its operating strip. Some pilots are not happy about the construction of helicopter pads. We should be assured that they are safe. One of the essential differences between such vessels as Transworld 61 and Transocean 3 and a ship is the rôle of the helicopter in evacuating crews.

I have emphasised the importance of regulations for the design of the rigs, but other safety requirements are also important. I do not know what are the Minister's responsibilities now as Under-Secretary of State for Energy, but formerly he was responsible for social conditions.

About a month ago 50 men in my area were sacked and replaced by Spaniards. A letter has been written to the Department protesting about the men's lack of rights. Their contracts are worthless. They are, however, exempt from the operation of the Industrial Relations Act, and perhaps that is why there are not many disputes in the industry. The Department of Employment promised to look into the question of regulations. The workers need a social charter. They are entitled to decent working conditions and reasonable working hours. The right type of man would then be attracted to the industry. The danger is that they are replaced by cheap labour from countries that have no maritime experience, and those men will be unable to respond satisfactorily in dangerous situations. It is essential to have the right kind of men on the rigs.

We need a new social charter. Is the Minister considering this? That, accompanied by safety regulations, would be a great step forward in improving the lot of workers on rigs.

11.6 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Peter Emery)

It is always a pleasure to follow the speech made by a renowned expert on the subject on which he has spoken. The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) is known to be the leading expert in the House on the subject of diving, and it is, therefore, a great pleasure to follow him.

The new Department of Energy is responsible for the safety of offshore oil and gas operations in the United Kingdom Continental Shelf. I make that position clear because there has been some doubt about it. We are completely and utterly sold on the need for adequate safety provisions and regulations for those who work on the rigs and permanent platforms and who service rigs and installations in the North Sea. I hope that I shall be able to rebut several criticisms that have been made as much from lack of knowledge as for any other reason.

All operations are monitored by the Petroleum Production Inspectorate, which, apart from making routine inspections to ensure that safety regulations and terms and conditions of licences are being met, invariably makes immediate inquiries into all accidents involving loss of life or risk to life. I do not think that that is understood, and it is important to get it on the record.

The present method of enforcing safety requirements is by non-statutory conditions attached to petroleum exploration and production licences granted by the Department. That refutes the allegation made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mrs. MacDonald) that we have paid no regard to this aspect. Even before regulations are introduced we have ensured that safety requirements are tied up with the licensing conditions. These arrangements are being replaced by a comprehensive code of statutory safety, health and welfare regulations under the Mineral Workings (Offshore Installations) Act 1971. These regulations have not been shelved. They are being made. We shall review them.

Four sets of regulations have been made concerning registration of installations, appointment of installation managers, keeping of log books and registration of deaths and so on, and the powers and duties of inspectors, accident notification and inspection. The two which are probably the most important, and which are now being drafted, concern the construction and survey of installations and diving regulations. All these are in an advanced state. The construction and survey regulations should be made within the month.

This is not just in response to the debate. Often one has to bring something forward to answer an Adjournment debate. The problems have been considerable and the consultation that has taken place has been as great as with any legislation that I have known, mainly because we are dealing with evolving technology and because, in construction and design, we are working with conditions never before faced when using rigs or building platforms—conditions which many Americans did not realise existed.

Mr. Douglas

May I tempt the Minister a little further? Will he tell the House whether these construction regulations will apply to concrete platforms as well as the steel variety?

Mr. Emery

I am delighted to be able to be tempted occasionally and to respond to such temptation. The simple answer is "Yes".

We are still dealing with regulations concerning emergency equipment and procedures, employers' liability, operational safety, health and welfare and regulations affecting public inquiries. I refute any suggestion that there has been any dragging of feet on the part of the Government. I had been responsible, in my earlier incarnation at the Department of Trade and Industry, and now in the Department of Energy, for ensuring that these matters were proceeded with properly and with speed but not undue haste. There had to be accuracy, and we would have been condemned if this had not been so. During the course of consultation, particularly on matters to do with construction and survey, things have gone backwards and forwards a number of times because, for instance, standards of tensile strengths which might have been acceptable in 1971 are not now acceptable. We have had to rethink certain of the factors which concern these specific regulations.

The policy intention is that those engaged in the often hazardous operation of offshore work in the search for minerals, especially oil and gas, shall have the full protection of a statutory code of safety, health and welfare provisions in the same way as their fellows on land or in mines beneath the surface of the land.

Mr. Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Craigton)

Will the construction and survey regulations apply fully to existing rigs at present in operation as well as to those which may be constructed in the future?

Mr. Emery

I think that the answer is "Yes". If there is any alteration in that, I shall of course write to the hon. Gentleman. My intention is that they will.

The regulations on the safety, design and construction of installations will require that within a stipulated period all installations on the United Kingdom Continental Shelf will have to possess a certificate of fitness to operate. I think that that meets the hon. Gentleman's point. If at the moment they are not fit, they will have to be brought up to the conditions that we require. Certificates will be granted only after careful study of the design and construction data and a full survey of the structure. Certificates may impose conditions about the areas in which a structure may be employed and the time of the year in which it may operate. If imposed, these conditions will take into account the characteristics of the structure, obviously, in relation to environmental and meteorological conditions likely to be encountered.

I now come to try to deal with a number of the points raised by hon. Members in the debate.

The hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Douglas) asked me about the evaluation of designs. I have dealt with much of that in what I have said already.

The hon. Gentleman then asked whether Transocean was registered. The answer is "Yes".

The hon. Gentleman's next question related to the amount of research and development available. On the whole, the research is under the control of the Ship and Marine Technology Board, under the chairmanship of Mr. Nigel Boakes. There are representatives of the Government, of industry and of the academic side on the research and development board.

The hon. Gentleman also wanted to know the amount of expenditure. Off the cuff, I believe that it is £1.5 million. It is in that area. There is pressure from a number of people that it should be raised. But that is specifically in this area, and I am not able to add the amount of research and development which has been carried out by individual firms in the work that they have been doing, though I believe that it represents many times that figure.

The hon. Gentleman's last question related to the safety of the gas flow from Frigg. This is dealt with in two ways. Obviously, our own safety regulations will not cover any platform operating outside the British Continental Shelf. But once the pipelining comes into the British side of the Continental Shelf, that pipelining, the conditions for working on it and any production platform will have to meet British requirements.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Robert Hughes) asked whether there would be a public inquiry into the Trans-ocean 3 episode. A full inquiry is being made, and a report will be made to the Offshore Installations Technical Advisory Committee, which will study the lessons to be learned from it. They will be made the subject of recommendations. I see no reason why the report from that body should not be made public. However, I reject the request for a public inquiry. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Sea Gem as an illustration. There was a loss of 13 lives there. In this instance there was no loss of life at all.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Although there was no loss of life concerned with Trans-ocean 3, the difference between no loss of life and loss of life was only four hours, which is a very short time. It was for that reason that I asked for an inquiry. But if the inquiry that the Minister is conducting will be made public, that is as good as a public inquiry.

Mr. Emery

I stand by the words that I used. I will not get into an argument on the number of hours. If a man takes four hours to cross a road he is likely to get hit. I do not want to get involved in that argument. I understand the point being made.

The hon. Gentleman stressed the need for the registration of installations. I am delighted to be able to respond quickly and say that we have brought that procedure into being.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that profit came before men's lives. I reject that allegation absolutely. Considering how the companies here have co-operated with the Department of Trade and Industry previously in the consultations, assisting the inspectorate to get the necessary information, and building up the expertise that is required, I do not think the hon. Gentleman would really want to make that kind of accusation.

The hon. Member for Govan talked about speed and haste in pressing forward. I think that we have shown that we have gone to great lengths to provide the necessary safeguards under the licensing procedure, and we are now providing the safeguards by statutory methods. There is no haste in this matter. We want to go forward with a degree of safety related to the thoroughness of being able to bring in proper and sensible regulations.

There has been no panic in dealing with the oil companies. There has, in fact, been close co-operation. No oil company, nor any of the inspectorate or staff in my Department, would agree with the hon. Member for Govan in attempting to substantiate a very dramatic phrase which sounds very nice but is meaningless in this respect.

The Government have gone to great lengths, through IMEG, through the OSO, through work on the environmental side and through the building up of the infrastructure, to ensure that this matter is dealt with properly. They have been proceeding with speed, yes, but thoroughly and properly with due consideration of Scotland's problems in this matter. Indeed, the Department is to be congratulated on the way that it has dealt with this matter.

Mr. Prescott

It sounds like 7th February.

Mr. Emery

Somebody might be able to use it for that purpose.

The hon. Member for Govan referred to the leg of Transocean 3 breaking and the superstructure floating away. I do not know how much of this matter has been published, but it might interest hon. Members to know that when the rig broke loose a close watch, both by air and by sea, was kept on it. Indeed, in conjunction with the company, the Admiralty was willing to sent out a boat and the Royal Air Force was prepared to use aircraft to sink the obstruction if there was any danger of a collision with shipping. The company had agreed that if that were done it would bear all the costs which the Government would have incurred. That shows the thoroughness with which the inspectorate and my Department are dealing with the problems that arise in the North Sea.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East asked about insurance for Transworld 61. I understand that at some time there had been insurance difficulties. The hon. Gentleman probably knows that the superstructure had to be strengthened before Transworld 61 could be covered by insurance.

Petroleum production inspectors regularly inspect rigs and platforms to ensure that conditions are safe and reasonable, and that the conditions of the licence are being carried out.

Now I come to the question of trained personnel. I take on board the point made about trained radio telegraphists and medical staff. It is the intention to lay down requirements for those types of staff, and, following the hon. Gentleman's remarks, I should want to look at this matter again to see whether we can meet the point that has been made so sensibly.

When one considers the amount of work done by the offshore industry and, indeed, the manner in which the work is done, one realises that it has a good record of safety consciousness. It has adopted a highly responsible attitude in its consultations with the Government and other interested parties, and we are most grateful for that because our regulations would not be as good as they are if that had not been the case.

This process has been time-consuming for the Department and for a multitude of organisations that have contributed expert opinions and views, but it has been worth while. I am delighted that we have had this debate, because perhaps we have cleared up a number of misunderstandings about such matters as whether the regulations even existed. This has been an interesting debate, and I am glad that the hon. Member for East Stirlingshire chose this topic for consideration.