HC Deb 27 April 1981 vol 3 cc609-25

10.5 pm

Mr. Barry Jones (Flint, East)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Diving Operations at Work Regulations 1981 (S.I., 1981, No. 399), dated 12 March 1981, a copy of which was laid before this House on 25 March, be annulled. A report in The Times on 22 January this year stated: Two divers were rescued last night safe and well from a crippled diving bell 400 ft. beneath the North Sea. They had been trapped for more than 10 hours after the umbilical cable supplying them with light, heat and air separated from the mother ship on the surface. The bell hung suspended on its lifting cable relying on its internal emergency system. The accident happened in the Thistle Oil Field 130 miles north-east of Shetland. A report in The Daily Telegraph last month stated that a diver lived in such excruciating agony for three years after being partially paralysed by the bends in a diving accident that he committed suicide". His widow's QC said that he would probably have recovered completely had it not taken nine hours to get him into a decompression chamber.

The Under-Secretary was right to sign the new regulations. Divers are the bravest of men and face the most frightening difficulties whenever they dive. We believe, however, that the Opposition were right to insist on a debate on the Floor of the House, because it would have been wrong to allow the regulations to go through unexamined, unchallenged and unchecked. We owe it to all divers to insist that their health and safety are not overlooked for one second during their perilous work amid the great scramble for oil and gas in the North Sea.

The overwhelming interest in the regulations is concentrated on the Scottish coasts, where much of the industry is based, but it is in the whole of Britain's economic interest that the regulations should be of the highest calibre, and that is certainly so for individual divers. It cannot be said too often that divers are highly skilled, determined and brave. But those qualities are not enough. The Health and Safety Executive must guard their interests, and the new regulations must guard the lives of those who make up the British diving corps. The Opposition approach the debate in that spirit.

There are many examples of diving accidents. I am told that a commercial diver was killed in 251 ft. of water when a chain was lowered and struck him. In another accident, a diving bell surfaced rapidly from 240 ft. and shed its weights. The diver was killed by the sudden drop in pressure. The weight-securing mechanism was not of good construction, and schedule 6 to the regulations requires arrangements to prevent the accidental shedding of bell weights. I understand that two divers died of cold at 330 ft. when the bell hoist wire was severed. Schedule 6 includes new requirements on the lifting gear used in connection with bells and the provision of means to locate bells in an emergency. Regulation 12 requires a diving vessel either to be at anchor or laid fast, or to maintain position in a safe manner.

The Opposition fully support the key regulation 4(1)(d), which states that the regulations must be complied with in such a way that persons involved are not exposed to risks to their health or safety. It follows that the diving contractor occupies a central position in the regulations. Regulation 5(2) lays on him the responsibility that

  1. "(a) each diving operation is carried out from a suitable and safe place …
  2. (b) emergency services are available …
  3. (c) there are effective means of communication between the place at which operations are being or are to be carried out and … the emergency services."
How does the Minister interpret the words in regulation 5(2) so far as is reasonably practicable"? Could that phrase be a let-out? Is that the way in which the contractor could circumvent the intention of the operation, namely, that persons involved are not exposed to risks to their health or safety"? Diving contractors are in business for commercial gain. Given that the regulations are liable to be criticised by some commercial interests because they require extra manpower and expenditure, can the Minister assure us that the inspectorate will not allow those words—I shall not call them a loophole—to be exploited and so endanger the health and safety of the diver?

Paragraph 19 of the guidance notes, which refers to regulation 4, deals with compliance with the regulations. It states: A high standard of co-operation between Diving Supervisors and Masters and Pilots will be necessary to ensure effective implementation of their complementary duties. That is an important statement, but it could be described as a pious statement. I want the Minister to say how the inspectorate and the executive will ensure that necessary co-operation. We should appreciate the Minister putting the matter into perspective.

Regulation 6 refers to the diving supervisor. It states that the supervisor shall ensure that plant and equipment is not used unless Regulation 13(1)(c) and (d) have been complied with. That regulation states that there is in force a certificate issued under paragraph (2) by a competent person that it has been examined and tested … (d) it has been examined by a competent person within the six hours immediately before the diving operation commenced. Regulation 13, which deals with maintenance, examination and testing of plant and equipment, also contains the words so far as is reasonably practicable It is a wide phrase which, together with the use of the comprehensive term "competent person" and the firm demand for examination within six hours, places great responsibility upon the supervisor.

Regulation 13(1)(a)(c) and (d) rightly asks much of the supervisor. Will the Minister be able to deliver the goods? What guarantee is there of the calibre and integrity of the supervisor? The Opposition like the six-hour provision, but we see room for evading the intentions of the regulation in the phrases competent persons and so far as is reasonably practicable". Regulation 8(2)(a) calls for a standby diver, while paragraph (2)(b) calls for an extra diver. It will be clear to the contractor and the diving company that regulation 8 and other provisions will conceivably lead to some extra financial outlay if, when the regulations come into force, extra diving manpower needs to be available. We urge the Minister to be firm in his approach. It is conceivable that there will be representations from some quarters that the regulations will create new financial burdens. We wish strongly to emphasise that the Minister should ensure that the Health and Safety Executive insists that the first priority of the regulations must be the health and safety of those who are diving and not the financial prospects of those who might be aiming to make large profits.

Regulation 10 refers to the certification of divers. Under regulation (1) (b)(iii), a certificate may be issued subject to restrictions within a category of diving. I ask the Minister to accept that it is important for the diving supervisor to be a person of integrity and for the inspectorate to be aware of the number and location of divers with certificates that only partly qualify them for diving operations. How will the Health and Safety Executive and the inspectorate of the Department of Energy cope with the problem?

Regulation 11 refers to the certificate of fitness to dive. I ask the Minister to give us more information about what the guidance notes call "approved doctors". Why do the regulations employ phrases such as "at this point for the time being"? Will a company doctor be an approved doctor? Will the medical men employed by the companies engaged in the North Sea oil drive be on the list of approved doctors? Will there be any conflict of interest between the need to have regard to the health and safety of the diver—everyone will agree that his skills as a true professional do not grow on trees—and the short-term considerations of the contractors and companies operating in the oilfields, whose approach is influenced primarily by the need for profits? I am anxious to have assurances from the Minister that approved doctors will be 100 per cent. behind the need to obtain the best health and safety for the diver.

With regard to that issue in regulation 11, how frequently and how effectively will the employment medical adviser survey the certificate and the whole area of medical fitness? Will he do so with a view to checking that fitness certificates have been wisely issued? Who are the approved doctors? Will they have any conflict of interest, and how many of them will issue the fitness certificates? Those points should be answered, because the approved doctor will be assessing the health of the divers.

How many employment medical advisers for diving are we talking about? How many of them are available? How many divers are we dealing with in Great Britain? Is the ratio of doctors and employment medical advisers to divers sufficient to deliver the goods of the health and safety of the diver? Do the regulations presage the appointment of more employment medical advisers and of more approved doctors?

There has been considerable debate in the media regarding the important issue of amateur divers. I know that other hon. Members want to raise that issue in more detail than I shall. I am speaking to regulation 14 and specifically to exemptions. The Minister will answer in his own time, but I believe that I can help the debate by posing the following questions. Is it correct that amateur divers are exempt if they dive using only a snorkel? Does it follow that for a diver to be subject to the regulations he or she will either be wearing underwater breathing apparatus or planning to enter a compression chamber? The Minister may have been briefed on this matter. Has he followed the correspondence in The Times and The Guardian regarding underwater archaeology? Mr. R. B. Cowan, who has been assiduous in putting his point of view on behalf of many people, is a protagonist for the amateur divers. I emphasise that I am anxious to see the regulations passed speedily into operation and that their passage should not be hindered. However, it is a moot point to raise.

In The Times last week, on the subject of underwater archaeology, Mr. Cowan vigorously made his case, saying that the Government were foisting on divers engaged in underwater archaeology and exploration the new and officious set of rules contained in their statutory instrument. He went on to say The main burden of the regulations will seriously affect or destroy their capacity to work. He was speaking about the rather narrow area of underwater archaeology. However, the House would be better able to judge the regulations if there were a ministerial response to that point.

I have also been reading articles and letters in The Guardian. Am I right to assume that a problem exists in the case of genuine archaeological diving with mixed teams of amateurs and professionals. The draft proposals would in no way inhibit the use of mixed teams but there are problems about amateurs occupying a position of responsibility such as diving supervisor or standby diver"? Given the doubts of marine archaeologists, the existence of the Runciman committee and the interests in the "Mary Rose", which is perhaps a classic example, does the Minister intend to review the archaeological situation against the regulations in perhaps a year's time and decide further whether reinterpretation is necessary? However, notwithstanding my queries, the regulations are welcome and perhaps urgently required.

Regulation 15 deals with transitional provisions. Under sub-paragraph (1) there is the possibility of the diving contractor issuing in the first six months of the operation of the regulations a certificate of training if he is satisfied from his knowledge of him during the previous two years that his diver is competent. How many contractors may be empowered to do that? How reliable will they be? What about their integrity? Are they known to the Health and Safety Executive and to the Department of Energy's inspectorate? What surveillance will be undertaken by the Minister? What guarantee will there be against abuse?

The qualifying phrase so far as is reasonably practicable appears throughout the regulations—for example in regulation 13(1)(a) concerning the testing of plant, in regulation 8(1)(a) concerning the diving team and in regulation 5(2) concerning diving contractors. The Minister must ensure that the phrase is not an escape route for those in the industry who may seek to exploit the diver and who might be tempted to cut corners. Our support for the regulations assume tight control by the Health and Safety Executive in favour of the diver's health and safety.

Given the importance of the certification board to the industry and to the safety of the diver, how strongly are trade unions represented on it? How is it administered? Who sits on it? What prospect is there of a fully fledged industrial training board being set up? The Minister and I have been in Committee together on the Employment and Training Bill. I know his views about training boards, but he may wish to give his view again on this important matter. I may be pulling his tail a little, but can he tell us what the current status of the certification board is? Is it not really a quango set up surreptitiously by the Government? Why do they not admit it, go all the way and set up a training board?

Is the Fort William diving school with its deep sea capability, secure? Will it be funded for the future, and how safe is its present funding? Will the Minister comment on the quality of the training at the school? Will it ensure that safety standards meet the tough job requirements, and does the training go beyond simple diving simulation?

I believe that at this stage we should pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker), because it was he who, as Minister of State, Department of Employment, during the Labour Government, set in train the procedures which in effect led to this debate. I am only sorry that for personal reasons he is unable to be present tonight.

I turn briefly to the schedules. I believe that they are of considerable overall benefit to the divers. The Opposition do not see them as being unnecessarily bureaucratic. Indeed, we see them as quite the opposite. They could he the diver's Magna Carta. If complied with, they could be his guarantees of a greater prospect of safety—the codification of safety procedures specifically for his benefit. That is clearly an advance.

The Opposition believe that, on the whole, the Health and Safety Executive has done a great deal of work, for which it should be congratulated. We are not among its critics. We give it strong support when it earnestly and professionally advances the cause of health and safety in an area as dangerous and complex as this.

To sum up, I believe that eternal vigilance will be the price of the health and safety of those who dive. Overall, we believe that the regulations are a big step forward, the more so because they represent conclusions drawn up after extensive consultation with the TUC, with individual unions and with some parts of big business. Nevertheless, we believe that neither the Government nor the executive should be in the least complacent about them. The operation of the regulations, the practical experience of them, the response and attitude of the industry towards them and the monitoring of and the reporting upon them, we hope—indeed, we insist to the Minister—will lead to continued reappraisal and reassessment. If such is the case, experience may lead to proposals for amendments aimed at buttressing the essential objectives—namely, the protection of the health and safety of the very brave men who undertake work which is frequently extremely dangerous and always very difficult.

I wonder whether the Minister would agree that perhaps every diver should receive a copy of the regulations, the extra information in the accompanying schedules and the more detailed guidance notes. Has he considered asking the executive to expect a diver to display a knowledge of the regulations and guidance notes before he is fully certificated?

In their totality, the regulations presume the good health of divers, the integrity of supervisors, the good faith of contractors, the availability of inspectors and the paramountcy of the concept of the diver as an individual in a risk-filled operation. It is clear that a great deal is required to make the regulations successful and acceptable. I believe that the continued co-operation and collaboration, and continued research and revision of the regulations remain important. I want to see committed and informed surveillance by the Minister over the whole of the diving sector, because he must know that he carries a massive responsibility on behalf of all of us in Parliament.

10.35 pm
Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

I might be thought to be an unlikely candidate to take part in the debate, so I shall make clear my credentials. I do not wish to dissent from anything that the hon. Member for Flint, East (Mr. Jones) said about the industrial diver in the North Sea and the importance of the regulations in that context. I wish to fasten on a point to which he referred—regulation 14, with its exemptions and the effect on divers who undertake nautical archaeology. My Interest stems from the time when I was a Minister and helped my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) with the Protection of Wrecks Act, which did a great deal to put nautical archaeology on a sound footing.

Many people concerned with nautical archaeology are worried about the effects of the regulations on what they have been encouraged to regard as a business that they can operate without undue interference or restraint. The correspondence in The Times and The Guardian came from people who know what they are talking about. For example, Mr. Rex Cowan is a pioneer and has enormous achievements to his credit in the exploration of historic wrecks in unlikely and dangerous places. Margaret Rule is the secretary to the Council of Nautical Archaeology, archaeological director of the Mary Rose Trust, and vice-president of the British Sub-Aqua club. They know a great deal about the subject. They have said, not lightly, that they are worried about the way in which the regulations will hit them.

I am sure that the Minister will say that regulation 14, with its provision for exemptions, will deal with the anxieties and prove them unfounded. However, I hope that he will give further reassurances. I have no wish to hinder the passage of this desirable set of regulations, but I should mislead my hon. Friend if I said that nautical archaeologists were confident or pleased with what has happened so far.

I shall not read the letters that have appeared in the press, but I received a letter recently from Mr. Rex Cowan, who said that if the regulations were interpreted literally or in a hidebound way no archaeological work could be carried on with any permanent security. So far as exploration for historic shipwrecks is concerned, the unknown and uncertain conditions leave me in some doubt as to whether the Executive will be able to apply the proviso in Clause 14". That requires that the health and safety of persons who are likely to be affected by the exemption will not be prejudiced in consequence of it.

It is obvious that because of the priorities in the regulations the restricted number of civil servants free to concentrate upon them are more likely to be preoccupied with the North Sea. That is probably right, but if the effect is that they are not able or willing to grant exemptions to divers engaged in nautical archaeology, who may receive remuneration, it will create a major block, which, according to Mr. Rex Cowan, will set back nautical archaeology by 10 years. Not many people are engaged in such work, but those who are are specialists, and usually amateurs. Some of them receive remuneration for their work. They do not know where they stand.

An article in this week's Diver magazine states that the civil servant responsible for the administration of the regulations has not yet been able to produce a categoric answer to one or two significant questions. For instance, he was asked whether a group of amateur divers who decided to make an underwater film for possible sale to the BBC or ITV would be subject to the regulations. His answer was Probably so, but we would like to discuss it". Again, he was asked whether divers who were commissioned to write articles or to test equipment by the editor of the magazine would be covered, and the answer was "Probably yes". At a later stage, he was asked about amateur divers who are paid in cash for clearing a trawl or pot line, and his answer was: Provided the payment is not large, this may be regarded as payment for diving equipment wear and tear and the regulations would not apply. All these woolly replies seem to indicate that the Civil Service machine is not exactly ready to deal with the problems. There might well be circumstances in which all these matters needed to be discussed at great length. In the meantime, the BBC, the underwater explorers and others would be obliged to mark time, and the investments that they might make in this matter would be jeopardised. They would be placed in a state of total uncertainty.

I hope that my hon. Friend will tell me that he has no particular desire to create that situation, but it seems likely that that is exactly what he will do. It is a great pity that he was not able to do what was done When the first regulations in this area were produced, and to give a blanket exemption. Clearly, he thinks it right not to have done so, and no doubt he will tell the House why he did not do so, but in the interval the publication of the regulations in this form and the complexity of their administration, as it is reasonably forecast to be, seem to be an undesirable extension of Government interference in an area that is not very significant, but is admittedly dangerous, at a time when hang-gliding, potholing or some other activities that entail some danger, and that earn some remuneration, do not carry the full might of the Government inspection machine.

Understandably, those who have been affected, as they see it, by the regulations, and who have no particular guarantee that they will get exemptions, are concerned about them. Even if they get exemptions, it worries them to be told, as the order tells them, that any such exemption may be granted subject to conditions and to a limit of time, and may be revoked at any time, without any indication of the terms and conditions, and without the possibility of an appeal to an independent arbiter if revocation is in prospect.

I recommend to my hon. Friend that he should find time to meet more of the people who are involved. I believe that he has met some of them but that he has not met Mr. Rex Cowan. He is depriving himself of a remarkable experience by not so doing. As a Minister I did not meet anyone else who came into my room to see me and threw pieces of eight on the table in front of me. That is not a bad conversational gambit, if I may put it in that way. I do not think that I was allowed to keep any of them, but at least it was nice to touch them. It brings a new dimension, from which my hon. Friend and his civil servants might greatly benefit.

This is something special. It has character and style about it, and it carries some risk. But if we are to be in any sense adventurous or enterprising we ought to be prepared to see it carried on by sensible people who know the risks that they are taking and are willing and able to look after themselves.

10.43 pm
Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

I should like to follow the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) in making reference to the problems of underwater archaeology, which is only one specific detail affected by the regulations but none the less one which has caused a good deal of concern.

I am grateful to the Minister, who at a very late stage in the preparation of the regulations was prepared to meet me, together with representatives of the Council for Nautical Archaeology, to discuss the special problems of professional archaeologists who dive to carry out their work, sometimes supervising in an archaeological sense, although not in a diving sense, the work of amateur divers, who are amateurs as divers as well as amateurs as archaeologists.

Ray Sutcliffe, chairman of the Council for Nautical Archaeology, and Margaret Rule, its honorary secretary—who is responsible for the work on the "Mary Rose"—wrote to me today to say that they appreciate and welcome the initiative taken by the Health and Safety Executive to safeguard the lives and improve the conditions and safety of those working underwater. They do not wish to inhibit the proper development of the regulations but are concerned about the special circumstances surrounding those who work for the purposes of archaeology solely—albeit in a professional capacity—and for non-commercial research.

The hon. Member for Woking referred to the fact that the Council for Nautical Archaeology is mindful of the Health and Safety Executive's offer of an exemption for archaeologists from the diving at work regulations and of the offer of discussions with the council on how that exemption can best be achieved. The CNA is grateful for the exclusion of archaeology and non-commercial research, specified in the revocation regulation 16(2). However, as the hon. Member for Flint, East (Mr. Jones) pointed out, it would appreciate an assurance from the Minister that an exemption for the same purposes from these regulations will be forthcoming. As Mr. Cowan pointed out in his letter to The Times, the council is concerned that the Minister should give an assurance that any alteration or revocation of pertinent regulations would not occur unless relevant advice had been taken and consultations had been held with the archaeological profession.

I have referred to a small group who undertake some of the most important archaeological research as a result of technology that has become available in the past decade. Like the hon. Member for Woking, I feel that it would be unfortunate if regulations that are rightly being introduced for other purposes were—contrary, no doubt, to the Government's intention—to inhibit the important work of such archaeologists.

10.47 pm
Mr. Iain Sproat (Aberdeen, South)

I rise to speak briefly on two points. The first concerns the case for nautical archaeology, which has been put strongly by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), who helped me so much when I introduced the Protection of Wrecks Bill some years ago. A great deal of confusion and concern exist in the minds of those engaged in nautical archaeology, and I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will set some of those doubts and fears at rest.

My second point concerns a matter that has worried many of my constituents who are divers. I have written to my hon. and learned Friend several times, and he will know that inadequately trained foreign divers, who have been taught in foreign schools and have lower standards than those that obtain here, work off North Sea oil rigs because they are not restricted by the Immigration Acts. They can operate although they have not been as well trained as British divers. That has two results. First, there is an inadequate level of operation in certain parts of the North Sea. Divers can be employed by foreign companies which pay lower wages than they would have to pay to British divers, because they are less well trained than their British counterparts. The issue is particularly serious because there is considerable unemployment among British divers.

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will spell out that the regulations will go some way towards tightening up the situation. In the past, foreign divers have escaped the net of British legislation. If there were a tightening up, there would be an improvement in the training standard of divers who operate off British-owned rigs. In that way, there would at least not be unfair competition against British divers who have trained to a higher standard.

10.50 pm
Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

I should first declare an interest. I am a member of the National Union of Seamen, which organised the divers, and was a Factories Act certificated diver long before the new regulations came into force.

I welcome the regulations, They are the culmination of a 10-year campaign that I began in 1970–71, when there were no laws covering divers operating off the oil rigs. At that time the late John Davies, who was the Secretary of State, invited me to bring before him ideas for regulations, which eventually were incorporated in a Bill upstairs.

Other hon. Members also played a considerable part in bringing forward legislation. The hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery), who was then the Under-Secretary of State and about whom I have made many critical comments, also played a part in bringing forward the regulations. My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker), who unfortunately is not here this evening, played a major role in improving safety in the most dangerous occupation in this country, however we measure it.

The regulations are acceptable not only because they guarantee regulations for the safety and training of divers—that existed in other legislation—but because they do away with the different departmental regulations covering diving, whether one worked off a ship, a submersible or a dock. They are now in comprehensive legislation, and that is a welcome step forward.

I welcome the fact that the Health and Safety Executive is playing a considerable role in safety and training. I am sorry that we were not successful in putting training and safety in the North Sea under the Health and Safety Executive, as the Burgoyne report recommended. I support the minority view of that committee that they should be under the total control of the Health and Safety Executive.

The maritime trades—whether fishing, seafaring, diving or working on the rigs in the North Sea—are the most dangerous of all trades. We are concerned with the most dangerous occupation of all by any analysis—diving. According to figures supplied by the inspectorate, there were peaks of nine deaths a year in the period from 1974 to 1976, coming down to three deaths in 1979. I do not know the figures for 1980. I suspect that there were no deaths at all in that year. But last weekend another diver died. That reminds us that while divers represent only 1 per cent. of the population on the rigs, they account for 35 per cent. of deaths and 16 per cent. of serious injuries. That can be seen in the brown book published by the Department of Energy. Therefore, this is an occupation with risks 20 or 30 times greater than the risks associated with the mining industry, which is another dangerous industry.

The silver lining is that to a certain extent deaths have been declining. I am sure that is due to the controls imposed by the House. People are sometimes critical of legislation. But it is nice to know that we are ahead of most countries in bringing in legislation covering divers. Indeed, other countries have been adopting it. That is a particularly pleasing aspect.

I pay tribute not only to the agencies involved but to Commander Jacky Warner, who has been in this industry for some time, and the inspectors working with him. Commander Warner has played an honourable and forceful role in bringing about this decline in the deaths of divers. With that I couple the training school at Fort William, which I recently visited. The facilities and instructors there are most impressive. The combination of those factors has led to the decline in the number of deaths and accidents to divers.

Remarks have been made about concern for divers and their safety. Other problems concern divers, such as the foreign labour involved in the industry undermining a number of our standards and conditions. Matters such as wages, conditions of work, made union recognition and United Kingdom diver preference are of concern to divers. These are the subjects of our next campaign for divers, though not for these regulations. Although not affected by the regulations, those are matters in which my organisation and I are attempting to improve the lot of men who can work for only a short time in this profession and who probably face consequential occupational hazards later in life. Bone necrosis can result from the pressures of the waters in which they work, although it may not become evident until 10 or 15 years after the men have finished diving.

I am concernedon two counts about the regulations. My hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mr. Jones) has put many searching questions that I shall not repeat. Archaeological diving is only a small part of diving, with amateurs outnumbering professionals. Nevertheless, the regulations will apply to archaeological diving, although exemption is possible. I had the opportunity to dive on the "Mary Rose" some years ago. I was impressed with the archaeological work that was done. Anyone who has dived with Rex Cowan knows that he is a colourful character. I had the honour to collect 30 pieces of eight off the bottom of the sea from the vessel "Hollandia" and still possess one of them.

I have also been impressed by the work of the Runciman committee, set up by legislation to which reference has been made. When areas of marine archaeological interest have been identified, people are allowed to begin work and to reveal all that has been uncovered from the "Hollandia" and the "Mary Rose" This type of activity was exempted by the Department of Trade. The criticisms arise from the fact that the Health and Safety Executive has allowed flexibility which cannot be defined but which the executive has been willing to discuss. that flexibility has been granted following pressure from the archaeologists.

Nevertheless, there is concern. I hope that the Minister will reply to the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East that he should review the situation in 12 months' time to see whether difficulties have arisen over implementation and interpretation. I do not believe that the House would wish amateur divers to find themselves in a difficult situation. There is a balance to be struck. While we grant power for the agency to be flexible, it would be reassuring to those who feel that the same body is to be their judge and jury, with no appeal, if the Minister agreed to examine any complaints in 12 months' time.

The more important part of the regulations relates to certification, qualification and training. We need to examine the certification board, which, I understand, has been established, and the certification requirements. These are a major step forward and very much to be welcomed.

After my visit to the Fort William school, I made criticisms that I thought the standards had been reduced. I should like to put on record that I do not think that I was entirely correct. I believe that I can justify the point, but I am not sure that the force with which I made it was correct. The standards of training imposed by the Fort William school, particularly for deep sea diving to a depth below 150 ft—the air and mixed-gas diving described in the regulations—have generally been adopted by the French and Norwegian schools for joint certification exchange in our waters.

However, when I have looked at the codes of practice that are to be taken with the regulations I have been somewhat concerned about a practice that seems to come about more for a commercial reason than for concern for safety. By that I mean that in ordinary air diving, which can be up to 50 metres, some schools will be qualified to give certifications, but the reality is that they do not have the water to reach those depths. That means that those conditions must be simulated.

I am not very happy about simulated training. The circumstances should be that if there is water available in areas of the country in which training schools exist we should make sure that the facilities are available for that proper training. That means giving recognition to the schools which have adequate depths of water for such training.

That might not be a serious problem in relation to air diving, but it certainly is in relation to mixed-gas diving. At present, that experience is required of those who dive at Fort William, which, I think, is the only school in the country where such depths can be reached. People have been training in bells in that area. The regulations and standards seem to suggest that with some companies it will be possible to be qualified to dive to these depths without actually having proper and adequate experience of such depths.

Therefore, my concern is that whilst a person may have to do certain bounce dives, as they are technically called in the industry, he would not be able to get adequate conditions for training in those circumstances. What will happen is that companies will be given the possibility of giving certification for the training of diving, recognised by the Health and Safety Executive, in which they will simulate the training in the bells.

This is a highly technical area. I am sure that the Minister is receiving a lot of advice. I think that we should use this debate not so much, perhaps, to ask the Minister to understand all the technical terms involved as to ask him to keep a wary eye on the fact that whilst the HSE has the power to decide which areas or schools should be covered for certification purposes, the House would be unhappy if we had to rely on training in simulated conditions. One would not expect a pilot to fly an aeroplane after simply being put in simulated conditions on the ground. There is a lot to be said for giving the actual experience.

If that means that the conditions are available only at Fort William, we should recognise that that is probably the only school at which certification for diving should be given. I think that that would guarantee Fort William as a proper and adequate school to do particularly the mixed-gas diving.

I conclude on the point about the future of the school. It is deplorable that this industry of £6,000 million-worth of sales last year, according to the brown book, spent on training only £4 million. That is one-tenth of 1 per cent. of what it has earned. As we understand it, the Fort William school is still under doubt. We hope that it will continue. The Select Committee reported many months ago saying that the present practices and way that it was financed and organised were totally unsatisfactory. I believe that the Government accept that argument. But we still do not have a permanent footing for the Fort William school. The doubt continues. It is about time that the Government made matters clear—I know the difficulties—about who is to finance the school.

This is the whole argument about whether we finance training by levy or leave it to the industry. Frankly, it has been left to the industry. The industry has not done it adequately or satisfactorily. I hope that the Minister will indicate that this unsatisfactory situation regarding the Fort William school will be very quickly cleared up and that we can have a proper training school to go with the certification and qualifications and with the improvement in the training of our divers. As we have already seen, this will go a long way to reducing the deaths in what is clearly one of the most dangerous occupations in Britain.

11.4 pm

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has not yet completed its consideration of the instrument and the usual channels have rushed the procedure, because the Committee is to consider tomorrow a memorandum from the Department of Employment on the regulations.

It is not the fault of my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mr. Jones), because the Opposition have rightly been pressing for a prayer on the instrument. The time of the House is dictated by the Government and they ought to take account of the fact that the House has set up a Joint Committee to examine such instruments and to report to the House if it thinks that there is any ambiguity or whatever in an instrument. It is nonsensical to set up a Committee and to consider the instrument the evening before the Committee considers a memorandum that it has asked for.

As Chairman of the Joint Committee I cannot report the Committee's views to the House, because it has not reached them. If the Committee decided that there were grounds for a report it would produce a report and supply it to the Vote Office. That would help hon. Members in debating the instrument.

The Committee will probably have in mind that under regulation 4 a diving contractor has a responsibility to ensure that persons whom he is engaging in diving operations will conform with the regulations. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who is an expert on diving, pointed out that training has been left to the industry and that it has not been done satisfactorily. Under regulation 4 the operation of the regulations appears to be the responsibility of the diving contractor, and I shall be pleased to hear from the Minister an explanation of the way in which the contractor is to enforce the regulations. Will it be left to inspectors appointed under section 19 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act to enforce them? Will the contractor be subject to penalties under the Act? How will the regulations be put into effect?

The second matter of concern is that under regulation 5 every diving contractor shall, in respect of each diving operation, Issue diving rules in accordance with Regulation 9 and Schedule 1 for regulating the conduct of all persons engaged in the diving operation". In effect, that is delegating the power to legislate, because we are giving contractors the power to issue rules, breach of which may be a breach of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act. What is the precise position of those rules? The regulations do not make that clear. For example, regulation 9 states that the diving contractor has to supply the diving supervisor with a copy of the rules and that the supervisor should make available to each member of the diving team a copy of the part or parts of the rules that are relevant. In addition, if an inspector appointed under section 19 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act requests a copy of the rules, the contractor must supply it.

Will it be a regular requirement that a copy of the rules should be provided, in order to make sure that they are set out in understandable prose? There is no prescribed manner in which the rules should be laid down. I understand that the Health and Safety Executive is to issue guidance. Why cannot it issue the rules? With the background of its experience and with guidance from those in the industry, the executive would be well placed to issue rules, which are the kernel of the regulations in terms of safe diving.

As regulation 9 and schedule 1 set out areas that have to be covered, we are asking, in effect, that diving contractors should provide rules that have some statutory enforceability. That is an unusual method of legislating. It is subordinate legislation, but the task of providing it has been handed over to a private contractor. That unusual method will cause the Committee concern.

On the question of exemption certificates under regulation 14—I do not speak for the Committee, because it has not had the opportunity to make a report—it is right that the Health and Safety Executive should be able to grant exemptions and that the executive and not an individual inspector should do so. The executive grants a universal warrant under section 19 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, 1974 which means that if it provided exemptions in its usual form an agricultural inspector could grant exemptions.

I know that the Committee has raised that point before. In such a highly specialised position, where grave danger is a consideration that the executive must take into account, it should consider the matter and grant the exemptions. I suspect that the Select Committee will consider those areas tomorrow. In the meantime, I shall be pleased to hear the Minister's comments.

I conclude with the reiteration that, following a week's recess, when the usual rounds of consultations have not been available to hon. Members, and when, the previous week, the Back Bench committees of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the 1922 Committee did not meet, which meant that representations were not possible, the Government should try their best to avoid a discussion of any statutory instruments that are subject to examination by a Select or Joint Committee before it has reported to the House. The Committee should have the opportunity to report to the House, because it is designed to help the House and to influence debates.

11.12 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. David Waddington)

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer). I shall ensure that his remarks are brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend. It is far from ideal if, as a result of a prayer, regulations of this nature are discussed before they have been considered by the Select Committee.

The regulations have a long history and are the product of much consultation. As long ago as 1976 an interdepartmental working group voiced concern about the proliferation of legislation dealing wth diving. It said that it was both practicable and desirable to have a single set of regulations applying to all diving operations at work. Draft regulations were produced, a revised version was published by the Health and Safety Commission in 1978 as a consultative document, further consultations followed with the CBI, TUC and many other bodies, and eventually these regulations were submitted in draft form to the Secretary of State. They were brought forward by the Health and Safety Commission for three basic reasons. It was thought that there was a need to consolidate and rationalise existing legislation, that there was a need to update that legislation and the requirements for health and safety contained therein, and that there was a need to bring within the scope of any regulations a number of previously unregulated diving operations.

I am sure that both sides of the House recognise that consolidation is involved. We are dealing with consolidation of regulations made under the Factories Acts, the Mineral Workings (Offshore Installations) Act 1971 and the Petroleum and Submarine Pipe-lines Act 1975. In the circumstances it is hard to believe that the time has not come when consolidation should take place and that there should be one comprehensive code.

Accident experience in diving over the past few years has pointed to shortcomings in the standards of training and fitness of divers, in equipment and in planning and systems of work. The new regulations tackle these various problems in the following ways. First, a person may not take part in operations as a diver unless he has a valid certificate of training and is competent to carry out the work that he is doing. In issuing certificates under parts I and II of the schedule the Health and Safety Executive will be advised by a certification board. That will be comprised of experts from both sides of industry. I am able to tell the hon. Member for Flint East (Mr. Jones) that there will be two experts from the CBI and two from the TUC, and that the board will be chaired by a member of the House.

Mr. Prescott

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman understand that these members are to be experts, or merely representative on the committee?

Mr. Waddington

As I understand it, they are certainly experts. They have knowledge of this type of work and are qualified to advise as a result of their expert knowledge.

The hon. Member for Flint, East referred to certificates. A register will be kept of all certificates. The register will be kept by the HSE. On 1 July there will be hundreds of experienced and competent divers who will lack the certificate of training. The regulations provide that a diving contractor may, during the first six months after the regulations come into force, issue a certificate to a diver provided that he is satisfied with the diver's experience in the previous two years. In my belief, there is no reason to think that contractors will behave irresponsibly in the issuing of the certificates. They will be responsible if anything goes wrong as a result of a lack of training.

There are about 12 offshore diving contractors. They are all well known to the inspectors. All divers now operating are currently being vetted by the inspectors for their qualifications and their experience. If, under the transitional arrangements, a certificate is issued by a diving contractor and it is felt by the inspectors that it was issued improperly, it will be open to the HSE to revoke the certificate.

The regulations require a thorough annual medical examination by a doctor approved for the purposes of the regulations. The employment medical advisory service will issue guidance to approved doctors on carrying out such examinations. Doctors will be approved only if they have special knowledge of the medical problems experienced by divers. There will be about 200 approved doctors to examine about 2,000 divers.

Regulation 12 concerns equipment, which I need not deal with. However, a number of questions were asked about the duties of those who plan, manage and supervise diving operations. The contractor is at the top of the pyramid of responsibility. He has to appoint supervisors, issue the rules and ensure that the necessary equipment is available. Inevitably, he, too, will be supervised. Inspectors appointed under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act will have the power to see that the regulations are complied with and that the contractors carry out their duties. Regulation 9(2) illustrates the way in which, an inspector will ensure that the diving contractor is carrying out his duties under the regulations.

The phrase so far as is reasonably practicable is a hallowed expression, found in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act and in many regulations. It recognises that a duty is sometimes imposed that cannot be absolute by the very nature of things. Sometimes it must be limited—for instance, by the consideration whether a person is physically present when an exercise is being carried out by the person who he has to ensure is performing his duties correctly.

Dealing with the vexed question of the scope of the regulations, the interdepartmental working group felt that new regulations should apply to all diving operations at work, which is merely keeping in line with the general philosophy of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. It would have been odd if regulations consolidating a series of other regulations dealing with operations carried out by people at work stated that various categories of people, although at work, should be denied the protection given generally to people at work in a hazardous occupation. It has never been the intention to impose requirements on amateur divers, but problems inevitably arise where divers at work operate in conjunction with amateur divers. Recognising that, the regulations include a power for the Health and Safety Executive to issue exemptions.

I sympathise greatly with those involved in archaeology. I take the points made, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow). He asked why the regulations did not contain a blanket exemption for archaeological divers.

An exclusion was granted to archaeological divers from the effect of the merchant shipping regulations, but of course there was no power under those regulations to grant exemptions. The Minister then responsible was faced with an all-or-nothing situation. He either had to bring forward an exclusion or he could do nothing to help the archaeological divers. He decided that it would be preposterous if no help were given to them, and therefore he brought forward an exclusion. The situation under these regulations is entirely different. There is a power to grant exemptions, and it is the wish of the Health and Safety Executive to meet, so far as possible, the very reasonable case that has been put forward by the archaeologists and other groups.

It would not be appropriate for me to engage now in a detailed discussion of the terms of possible exemption certificates, but I can assure the House that the Health and Safety Executive is approaching this matter with the utmost good faith. I happen to know that it has gone to a great deal of trouble already to try to meet all possible objections made by the archaeologists to their being subject to the full rigours of the regulations, and I can help the House even more than that by saying that I see nothing unreasonable in the suggestion put forward by the hon. Member for Flint, East, that if, indeed, an exemption certificate is granted to the archaeological divers, in a year's time I shall see that the terms of that exemption are reviewed in the light of the experience of those 12 months.

Mr. Barry Jones

I am grateful to the Minister for telling us that.

Mr. Onslow

I am equally grateful, but perhaps I can press my hon. and learned Friend for one further assurance—that there will be no delay, because of pressure of work on other accounts, in granting these necessary exemptions, because if they are to be forthcoming but not forthcoming soon, that will to some extent undermine the value of my hon. Friend's undertaking.

Mr. Jones


Mr. Waddington

Again, I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Woking that the door is open, and that there is no difficulty whatsoever in negotiations being resumed tomorrow with a view to there being a swift and amicable agreement to the terms of an exemption certificate.

Mr. Roper

I, too, am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for what he said, but could he go a stage further? Will he give an assurance that revocation of these exemptions will not normally be done without consultation and discussion with the archaeological interests?

Mr. Waddington

Again, it is easy for me to give that undertaking. I have had the opportunity to consider this matter only in the past few minutes, but I am assured that it has never been the practice of the Health and Safety Executive to grant any sort of exemption under any sort of regulation and then withdraw that exemption precipitously and without letting the interested parties make representations. I therefore can give the assurance, on behalf of the executive, there will be no withdrawal of any exemption certificate without those interested having the opportunity to make representations about the matter.

Diving is generally recognised as being one of the most dangerous activities, principally because of the hostile environment in which divers operate and which allows so little margin for error. There have been many casualties, but mercifully, as pointed out by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the situation has improved dramatically over recent years. Only today, however, I have learnt of the tragic death of a shellfish diver operating off the West Coast of Scotland. I hope that the House will accept that in relation to this dangerous activity there is an overwhelming case for bringing into being this single unified set of diving regulations.

Question put and negatived.