HC Deb 03 May 1976 vol 910 cc827-9
15. Mr. Gray

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what consultations have so far been held with oil companies to encourage the placing of orders for oil platforms in British yards; and what the results of those consultations have been.

Mr. Bean

My hon. Friend the previous Minister of State has had talks with a number of oil companies about their development plans for their fields in the United Kingdom sector of the North Sea and the possibility of their advancing orders for oil production platforms. These talks have been very useful in providing a full understanding of the technical considerations which play a very important ô in the companies' field development thinking. It is my intention to follow up these exploratory talks with detailed discussions with some of the companies.

Mr. Gray

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Government have produced precisely nothing so far and that all the time that they are dithering over this matter the loom of unemployment becomes more real for those who are affected by it in the platform industry? What is the Secretary of State going to do to reassure those who work in that industry that there will be positive steps instead of just the talk that has taken place so far?

Mr. Benn

As usual, the hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. The Government are not dithering at all. Each of the platforms costs about £150 million, and the ordering of them is for the companies. We have been in continual contact with them and the construction companies. I personally got in touch with all the oil companies last summer and my hon. Friend the former Minister of State took this up again. There are technical factors in the shift from steel to concrete. Studies are taking place to see whether the fields can be drained with fewer platforms, because of the cost involved. It is wholly false to imply that the Government are responsible for the present difficult position and its employment implications.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of the most highly skilled labour that can be used on the production of these platforms is in the areas with the highest unemployment, such as shipbuilding areas and in the construction industry areas, such as Merseyside? Will my right hon. Friend take that into consideration, because the work can be done and the skill is available? During the war the Mulberry harbours proved that the technical abilities were there. It is a question of getting on with the job and persuading companies to use existing labour.

Mr. Benn

I share my hon. Friend's hopes on this subject. We considered the possibility of off-the-peg orders, but the design of platforms depends upon their sites being precisely known. There was a technical report, which I made available to the unions so that they could check from their own knowledge whether the recommendation that they could not be made off-the-peg was correct. I recently spent one and a half hours with the oil liaison committee of the STUC in Perth, and there will be further discussions on the matter. We are hopeful that orders will come, but there is nothing that the Government can do to place £150 million orders at this time.

Mrs. Bain

Will the Secretary of State encourage oil companies to place orders for the semi-submersible rig that is being developed and built on Clydebank, an area of high unemployment? Does he agree that such a move would prevent rising unemployment and encourage technological advance in Scotland?

Mr. Benn

I appreciate the hon. Lady's concern. The Offshore Supplies Office in Glasgow has been engaged in vigorous activities on behalf of British firms building a whole range of platforms, including semi-submersibles. Attempts are being made to get the building of them directed in a way that will provide jobs in this country.